By DONNA WINCHESTER
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001
Joseph Gifford upends a large aluminum cookie sheet and eases it into an industrial sink filled with warm soapy water. He scrubs it with a green scouring pad, lifts it out of the sink, and lowers it into an adjoining sink filled with rinse water.
After dipping the clean cookie sheet in a sanitizing bath, he sets it aside to dry and reaches for a stainless steel salad bowl.
For most people, the task would be drudgery. For Joseph, 17, it is an accomplishment.
He is one of nine trainable and educable mentally handicapped students in the community-based instruction program at Dixie Hollins High School. The students travel on Mondays and Tuesdays to Tyrone Elementary School, 2401 66th St. N, for on-the-job training that prepares them for work after graduation.
Several of them, including Joseph, work in the school cafeteria. Three students assist special education teachers and two work in the library. All of them are learning to stay on task, follow a supervisor's instructions and work independently.
The community-based instruction program at Dixie Hollins started in 1996 in response to parents who wanted their children educated in a traditional high school rather than in a special education center. Many Pinellas County schools have CBI programs for educable mentally handicapped and severe learning disabled students, but Dixie Hollins offers the vocational readiness program to students who function at a lower level, program director Ruth Dobkin said.
"A lot more one-on-one is required for trainable mentally handicapped," she said. "Not as many of them can do independent things."
Rosa Antigua, 17, has been in the program for two years. When she gets off the bus at Tyrone with her classmates, she heads to the cafeteria and grabs a stack of napkins and a box of straws. She sets up sandwich bags on a tray she finds in the kitchen, counting as she goes: seven bags down, three bags across. Into each bag she drops a napkin and a straw.
When the pre-kindergarten assistants arrive to pick up their students' lunches, Rosa moves to the serving line. Mike Evans, 20, takes over where Rosa leaves off, filling each bag with a carton of juice and a package of animal crackers. Between the two of them, they will prepare 84 snack bags for children in Tyrone's after-school program.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Fernando Llamas, 17, slices bananas for a fruit salad at a table across from Joseph. Kitchen manager Debbie Grimes peels bananas on his right while another cafeteria worker slices strawberries on his left.
"There have been times we've been really short-staffed that (the students) have been a big help," Mrs. Grimes said. "They're really good at helping prep things for the line, helping us put stock away and serving on the line. We really look forward to having them on Mondays and Tuesdays."
Ms. Dobkin said the cafeteria is a starting point for many of her students because they get a lot of supervision. After they've been in the program for a while, they move to other parts of the school where they work more independently.
Outside on the playground, LaShawn Johnson, 16, is assisting pre-kindergarten children with varying disabilities. When she notices Jimmy Long, a child with Down Syndrome, sitting by himself, she goes to him, kneels down and looks into his face. After a half-minute of quiet conversation, she rests her hands on the 5-year-old's shoulders, turns him around and sends him back to play with the other children.
Robin Zeller, 18, is helping developmentally delayed children with their lunches in another pre-kindergarten class. After they finish, she helps their teacher pull out their blankets and pillows and watches them as they nap. Down the hallway, Jennifer Szwed, 17, is assisting a kindergarten teacher in a class of "medically fragile" students by preparing arts and crafts materials.
LaShawn's, Robin's and Jennifer's academic level is far below their grade level, Ms. Dobkin said, which limits their ability to work with children. But she said they establish wonderful relationships with young students and are a big help to their teachers.
While her classmates work in other parts of the school, Crystal Pruitt, 17, sits on the floor in the library surrounded by books. She methodically dusts a shelf with a soft cloth and checks to make sure that each book's due-date slip has been removed before replacing the book on the shelf.
Across the room, Justin Maguder, 19, who has been in the CBI program for three years, uses a computer to check out books for Tyrone students. He listens carefully as the librarian gives him directions to a classroom where a teacher is waiting for a book. Justin knows his way around the school and says he never gets lost when he is asked to run errands.
Francine Edwards, Ms. Dobkin's assistant, stays in the library with Crystal and Justin. Because reading skills can challenge them, she is nearby to answer questions, but she encourages them to think for themselves.
Back in their classroom at Dixie Hollins, the CBI students pursue functional academics. They work toward special diplomas rather than standard high school diplomas and can prolong graduation until they are 22. They can spend up to eight years with Ms. Dobkin, working on basic skills such as telling time, counting change and recognizing sight words they need to know for their own safety, such as "poison," "danger," and "flammable."
They also develop what Ms. Dobkin calls life skills. They talk about the importance of wearing clean clothes and of being well-groomed. They discuss problems that can occur in the workplace and how to solve them. They also learn how to get along with each other.
"They're with each other all day, every day," Ms. Dobkin said. "They get mad at each other sometimes. I tell them it's much better to get along and have everybody be your friend than be mad."
On Friday mornings, the students work on their cooking skills. They use the kitchen in their classroom to make french toast or sausage or muffins. Last week, they baked Crystal a cake for her 17th birthday.
Friday also is community outing day. The students go on field trips that teach them independence and how to behave appropriately in public, Ms. Dobkin said. She has taken them by city bus to the mall to teach them comparison shopping, to the post office to show them how to mail letters, and to Ruth Eckerd Hall to introduce them to concert performances.
"When the kids leave school, they're going to be surrounded by "normal' people," she said. "They may be stared at, just like anyone else who is different. They need to learn what the world's expectations of them are and how to answer them."
Ultimately, she said, everything her students do in the years they spend with her prepares them for their senior year when they are eligible to begin working with a job coach. The job coach observes and assesses them, matches them with an employer, and provides on-the-job training.
Before they can be placed, the students must be completely employable. They must meet the same standards and be capable of doing the same job alongside any other worker, according to Dawn Manus, one of six vocational job coaches for Pinellas County Schools.
"The goal is for them to stay in the job they're trained in," she said. "They start out timid, but once they've been on the job site, they're doing things you didn't even train them to do."
Two seniors started working this year. Ms. Manus placed Jessica Perry, 21, at Wendy's, and Derrick Wilford, 20, at Winn-Dixie. They will attend Ms. Dobkin's class until they walk with the rest of the Dixie Hollins seniors at graduation ceremonies June 7.
It will be a big day for Derrick.
"I thought I wasn't going to make it to the 12th grade," he said. "I was scared that people would pick on me. Now my mom is proud of me because I made it this far."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
South Pinellas desks