Learning skills for the future

You never know what you can do until you try. Most of us grew up hearing those words from our parents, teachers or coaches, but for many of those in the San Antonio Independent School District’s (SAISD) Student Transition & Employment Program (STEP), it’s a new concept.

As the STEP literature notes, the program “is designed to support students eligible for special education services who are between 18 to 21 years of age to successfully transition from high school to community life. STEP students must have completed the required high school credits for graduation and mastered all state and local testing prior to admission into the program. STEP students experience new levels of independence, gain the opportunity to learn [the] skills needed to earn a paycheck and work with other members of the community.”

STEP participants gather on the baseball field with tools in hand ready to begin work.

Student participants in this paid vocational training program are all young adults with limited abilities. They are assisted during the transition process by the district’s Support Employment Personnel. The program was introduced during the 2004-2005 school year. Students from all eight SAISD high schools are considered if they meet the program’s requirements. They can move between the program’s approved training sites as it fits their needs throughout the year. The SAISD Sports Complex is one of those sites. I’m the athletic complex grounds coordinator, and the participants train under my supervision.

Getting started

SAISD built a state-of-the-art sports complex five years ago to provide top-quality playing fields for the district’s students, as well as for the entire community. The 25-acre site has a football stadium, a baseball stadium, three other baseball fields, concession stands, a maintenance building and parking. That’s 23 acres of high-maintenance turf and four baseball diamonds requiring daily prepping during the season.

My initial interest in the STEP program was driven by the need for additional workers. I looked at what they could do for our program more than what we could do for them. Now that we’re wrapping up the third year of participation in the program, it’s obvious that we’re all benefiting from it.

Job skills

We’ve had six to eight participants in each of our three seasons. I’ve not met them prior to the start of their training. They have many types of limited abilities.

We start with an orientation of the complex and explain the various duties and daily tasks needed to maintain the facilities. I then ask them to observe us as we work. That builds curiosity about what we do, which leads to interest in trying the tasks themselves and, with encouragement from their job coach, active participation.

Whenever we complete a new task, I’ll have the students look at the results and explain step by step what we did to achieve those results. I encourage questions from them to ensure their understanding of the job.

They learn to perform all of the basic tasks for baseball and football field maintenance and to operate equipment for mowing, string trimming and applying fertilizer. Some are capable of operating the field rake and driving the utility vehicle.

STEP participants take the field and get instructions on their job assignments.

This is a team effort, and there are days everyone will do the same things, such as picking up trash and cleaning restrooms. Every three weeks, we clean all the equipment. They learn the basics, like putting diesel fuel in the diesel equipment and gas in the gas equipment, checking the oil and changing the tires. They change lightbulbs, clean the air conditioner vents and do touch-up painting.

They also learn to take care of the environment. They turn off faucets when they’re not using water. They dispose of paint and oil properly.

We teach them to take ownership of their work. If they’ve done a good job, they can take pride in it. If they make a mistake, they learn to admit it and ask questions to learn how to do it right the next time.

I encourage them to watch sports on TV, which helps them visualize what we need to achieve with our fields. It gives me a way to deliver constructive criticism without hurting anyone’s feelings. If someone tried to take a shortcut when lining a field by not using a string line, I can remind them how good those nice straight lines looked on the TV screen, then take them to the top of the stadium to point out the difference.

We show them how simple tasks can achieve big results. After we’ve mowed a pattern in the fields, I’ll take them to the upper deck to observe it and review how we created it. I encourage them to find challenges they’d like to tackle. If they see a different pattern on a televised field and want to try it here, I’ll help them figure out how to do it.

Once they’ve become proficient in the daily tasks of baseball field maintenance, we encourage them to come and observe how we work during the games. That gives us the opportunity to explain that specific tasks will have different levels of speed and accuracy, depending on the job situation.

Success

We encourage our STEP crew to explore their options and check newspaper job listings to find something they’d like to do. Their teachers and job coaches help create the opportunities for them to apply for various positions. The participants have stretched themselves working with us, and we remind them how far they’ve come by facing the challenge.

Many of our participants have moved up to holding their own in the work world. Two are employed at car washes. Two are employed at hotels. Two are training at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. One of those is proficient in operating a chain saw and calibrating a spreader. One former student is training at the school district’s motor pool.

Working with these young adults as their supervisor in STEP has greatly increased my leadership skills and qualities. It has made me more aware of a growing population that is capable and enthusiastic about becoming viable citizens in our community. I encourage other school districts to pursue programs similar to this.

Michael Pinon is athletic complex grounds coordinator for the SAISD Sports Complex in San Antonio, Texas. E-mail him at michaelpinon@yahoo.com