Spotlight: Maryland School for the Deaf is Creating #DeafSuccess with their Work-to-Learn Program

Published on November 23, 2021

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Work Based Learning (WBL) programs allow students to learn valuable job, social, and life skills that they can use throughout their future. At the Maryland School for the Deaf (MSD), they have created and grown an incredibly sound program to help their students gain important work experience.

The MSD Transition Department has two key components to meet their high school students’ career transition needs: Work-to-Learn (WTL) and World of Work. Both programs are a collaboration with the Division of Rehabilitation Services, which supports the programs with Pre-Employment Transition Services (pre-ETS) funding.

Over the past 11 years, the program has really grown. In 2019 31 students were placed in local businesses and supported by seven employment specialists. MSD has put together this cross-agency partnership with one goal in mind: improve the employment outcomes for deaf youth.

Starting Early with Guidance and Hands-On Experiences

At MSD, students can prepare for work placement through the World of Work course, where work-readiness skills are developed. This coursework starts early in a student’s high school journey, helping freshmen and sophomores who are considering a likely career path after high school to develop competitive employability skills.

As part of the World of Work course, students complete career interest inventories and discuss with transition specialists which industries they might want to pursue. Key study areas include work ethics, self-advocacy, job safety, time management, work productivity, conflict management and resolution, and understanding hard and soft skills.

To move students beyond coursework and into a work setting, MSD creates hands-on learning environments within the school, such as the on-campus “Goodwill Mock Store.” The students are evaluated on their work performance in the classroom and in these settings, while also being taught to understand the purpose that evaluation serves, both in school and the real world.

The World of Work coursework sets the foundation for future success and builds students’ knowledge, skills, ability, and self-confidence in the workplace, preparing them for MSD’s program.

From the Classroom to the Real World

The Work-to-Learn (WTL) program allows students to learn valuable employment skills beyond the classroom, either on campus or at work placements at community businesses — all under the guidance of transition specialists.

These specialists interview students, review their transition skills, and match business partner options with student interests to identify possible work placements. Transition specialists also serve as role models for students, helping them develop professional relationships and understand their job duties.

After students are matched with employers, both the students and employers sign a Pre-Employment Transition Services: Work-Based Learning Experience Agreement form, which details the knowledge and skills that will help students connect school experience to real-life work activities and future career opportunities.

Students are then trained and onboarded at the work site. This process varies with each employer. A hospital placement includes an interview, hospital orientation, customer service class, tuberculosis test, flu shot, and references from the school. A catering placement includes safety training, such as knife skills training, and training on using an oven and other appliances.

Transition specialists also work with employers and students to identify an effective communication model that works for them. Models can vary based on the employer and the student’s language skills. Models like using basic American Sign Language (ASL) or gesturing, using written notes and texts, employers using speech-to-text on their phones, and using symbol systems such as communication cards are all looked at as possible workplace options.

The businesses benefit from this program as well by learning accommodation options that can support a culturally diverse workforce. As one employer said, “While they are learning one part of my job, I am learning more of the language, which is what connects us all together. I love it!”

Thanks to the WTL program, students have opportunities to apply occupational and interpersonal skills in a real work environment. Students are assigned work tasks and responsibilities by the employer and compensated through Division of Rehabilitation Services pre-ETS funding, giving them the opportunity to earn their money and learn important financial skills.

“I was excited to get my first paycheck so that I could start saving,” one student from the program said. “I used some money to buy clothes and things. I don’t want to depend on my parents forever. I am a senior now, and I want to be independent. I know what to do without relying on my parents all the time.”

Success Takes Work

Successful programs like MSD’s World of Work and WTL programs don’t just happen. They take dedication. For the past 10 years, the WTL program director and staff have worked to develop relationships with local businesses through cold calling, personal visits, and involvement in local business chamber meetings. Because of the success of the program, businesses interested in being involved in the deaf community now reach out to MSD directly.

But even strong programs have felt the impact of COVID. For over a year and a half, students were not able to work due to safety concerns. They were not able to apply their work readiness skills in real life work sites and did not have an opportunity to develop employability skills, those skills that go beyond qualifications and experience. These employability skills include important things like communicating with co-workers and supervisors who do not communicate in American Sign Language, problem-solving, being reliable and dependable and having self-management in the workplace.

Over this past summer, however, MSD once again got the WTL program up and running. They worked with 21 students across the state of Maryland, allowing them to create and develop new partners while reconnecting with previous employers. MSD also provided a lot of training to students on how to keep safe at work during the pandemic.

Evidence of MSD’s success can be seen in the increasing number of participating students, over 35 students in either off campus work sites or working on campus. Employers are thrilled to have students back in their businesses, with more businesses wanting to be involved all the time.

“Students leave confident and self-determined,” says Jennifer Weeks, Director of Secondary Transition Services. “They are ready to face the world after graduation.”

More Resources

To help support your efforts to grow and improve your own WBL experiences for deaf students, the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes (NDC) offers many resources and learning opportunities.

Our free, online professional development course on WBL programs — Developing Accessible Work Based Learning Programs — helps you consider what is needed to design accessible programs for deaf students, evaluations, and opportunities for iterative improvement. It will also help you find tools that can be used to gather input from students, employers, and teachers about work placements and learn from deaf people’s experiences in employment settings.

As always, our NDC help team is here to support you. Additionally, here are some great resources to also check out:

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