New Norwich program aims at preparing grads for jobs, independence
Norwich — Jaime Burgos-Matos paused only briefly from his task of assembling pizza boxes at Big Y Supermarket in Norwich to ask his school director to let him stay at this job rather than rotate to another position.
“This is the best job I've ever had!” the 19-year-old Franklin man said. “I like working alone. I like making my money.”
In the bakery at the front of the store on the same recent Wednesday morning, Tyler Palmer, 19, of Norwich was making crostini, Italian crusty bread with garlic butter, while waiting for the dough to rise and be ready to make snowflake rolls. Palmer loves making snowflake rolls and ending up with as much flour on his uniform as on the rolls.
“Snowflake rolls are the most popular rolls for the holidays,” Big Y Bakery Manager Terry Messore said. “Tyler does a great job.”
Palmer has been working in the Big Y bakery since September, while Burgos-Matos has been working at the store for the past five or six weeks.
Both are among the 18 students enrolled in the new Norwich Public Schools Transition Academy, a post-high school vocational training program for special education students ages 18 to 21. In their classrooms, students learn independent living skills, such as budgeting, navigating public transportation and social skills needed to interact with co-workers and customers at work sites.
They also do mock job interviews and record them for coaching afterward.
Every day, a dozen students in the program travel to four different job sites for five-hour work shifts. Transition Specialist Thomas Dufort, who runs the program, has arrangements with 16 different job sites throughout the greater Norwich area. Students rotate among the different jobs to learn what types of jobs they like the best, Dufort said. Cross training also gives them the edge if a student is out sick, and there's a job shift to fill somewhere.
Uncas School cafeteria, Big Y in Norwich, Papa Gino's in the East Brook Mall in Mansfield and Mohegan Sun are among the sites employing transition students.
Students start out earning $5 an hour with job coaches accompanying them each day. Once the students learn the ropes of the job, the job coaches back off, allowing the students more and more independence. Eventually, the goal is for the students to work on their own. At that point, they can earn $7.50 per hour. And when they graduate, they enter the competitive job market.
“Our goal when our students leave here is that the only thing different is that they won't see us anymore,” Dufort said. “They will have a job and a place to live.”
But he added that anytime former students need advice or a job reference, they are welcome to call.
Norwich launched the program this school year in an effort to save money both by avoiding paying tuition for Norwich students to attend such programs elsewhere — including at Norwich Free Academy — and to bring in tuition revenue by enrolling students from outside Norwich.
The transition program is operating with a budget of $261,000 for staff and $68,000 for food, stipends and transportation, a total of $329,000, said Athena Nagel, public school system business administrator.
The hometowns of four students currently enrolled from outside Norwich pay tuition of $39,500 each, but the school system gets to keep only $65,464 of that total, with the remaining $92,536 going to the city's general fund as revenue. Nagel said the school system keeps only an amount that covers program expenses for the students paying tuition.
Still, the savings have been immediate, Nagel said. The Norwich school system last year paid $322,000 to NFA for its former LEAD post-high school transition program for only seven students, Nagel said.
The Transition Academy is housed at the Hickory Street School next door to Norwich Adult Education. Norwich hired Dufort, who ran the former LEAD program at NFA, which closed in June after Norwich announced it would start its own program. Job coaches who have worked at NFA and, prior to that, in the Windham school district also followed him to the new program.
The Norwich Transition Academy staff and students will host an open house at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 11 at the school. Attendees can learn about the program and tour the school, which includes classrooms, a small kitchenette, locker rooms for men and women with laundry machines and ironing boards for students to keep their uniforms in order.
“We're hoping it generates questions,” Dufort said. “It's for prospective students, officials from other school districts and for the Norwich Board of Education. Those are people who took a leap of faith to put us here and get it started.”
In a classroom on a recent Tuesday morning, teacher Allison Orcutt ran a charades game, asking four participating students to silently portray different emotions or conditions. Students took turns rolling their eyes, putting hands on their heads, or heads in their hands to show how they might act if they were bored, feeling ill or just overwhelmed by a situation. Orcutt explained that nonverbal communication is an important part of the adult social world, at work or in leisure activities.
They then moved to the classroom across the hall to talk about their jobs.
Kasia Duhaime, 19, of Lisbon said she has worked at the Uncas School cafeteria and at Big Y assembling pizza boxes. But so far, her favorite position is stocking shelves at Big Y. She has become the store expert at returning items customers decide not to buy at the registers to their proper shelves.
“If something is in the wrong place, I find out where it belongs,” she said.
Tyler Belfleur, 19, of Canterbury flashed a broad smile when he talked of his current job in the cafeteria at Uncas Elementary School in Norwich. Belfleur prepares hot lunches, packs brown-bag lunches, assembles yogurt lunches — a yogurt, muffin, spoon and orange slices — and then helps serve the meals and assist kindergarten students through what can be confusing cafeteria chaos.
“I like talking to the kids, teaching them manners,” Belfleur said. “I joke with them. 'I know you. You don't like your veggies. I've got some extra veggies for you!'”
Open House for Norwich Transition Academy
Wednesday, Jan. 11
5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
201 Hickory St., Norwich.
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