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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
James Rigby, a senior at Kearns High School, makes sugar cookies with Kendra Davis, a substitute teacher, in a baking class at the Hilda B Jones Center in South Salt Lake on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018.

SOUTH SALT LAKE — On this particular day, James Rigby's attention is trained on making a batch of sugar cookies.

Beyond scooping precise amounts of dough on baking sheet so that the cookies bake in a uniform size and thickness, Rigby is also thinking of his career aspirations of working in a commercial bakery.

"I want to get a job after Kearns High — at a Harmons (Grocery)," said Rigby, 17, who is enrolled in a vocational training program at Granite School District's Hilda B Jones Center.

Hunter High School senior Teancum Davis is likewise thinking about his future as he cooks french fries in a deep fat fryer in the Jones Center cafe kitchen.

Fries cook for "three minutes," he said knowledgeably.

After his training, his next goal is "trying to get a job, just finding a job," Davis said.

The principal of the school believes a recent change in State School Board policy that creates a standard for awarding students with disabilities a “career development credential” will help them enter the workforce better prepared to succeed.

The Jones Center offers vocational training for students with moderate to severe disabilities in a number of learning laboratories, such as a commercial kitchen, computer lab, greenhouse, floral shop and an on-site banquet center where students learn to how to set up events, work as servers and operate industrial laundry machines to tidy up afterward.

There is also an on-site cafe, where students supervised by professionals learn to prepare food, take orders and work the cash register. Students also have supervised work experiences in the community that range from working in grocery stores to detailing automobiles.

Beyond work skills, students at the Jones Center also hone social skills and life skills such interacting with customers and riding mass transit.

"Our students know how to use public transportation as well if not better than just about everyone else," said Noelle Converse, Granite School District's director of special education.

While the objective of vocational training at the Jones Center is becoming employment ready, the overarching goal for students is full participation in their communities, or as Principal Alison Milne puts it, "removing barriers."

The career development credential can be earned in conjunction with a regular high school diploma or alternate diploma and does not replace either.

Linda Hansen, a member of the Utah State Board of Education, led a subcommittee that advocated for the rule change.

“It’s exciting for those of us in the special needs world. We’re raising expectations for our students with disabilities, and it’s a big system change. Students with disabilities who have employment lead happier and more productive lives. This puts them in the pathway of getting jobs,” she said in a prepared statement.

A student with an Individual Education Program can earn the credential if they meet requirements of a “career-focused work experience” prior to leaving school.

The credential requires 120 hours of community-based work experience, completion of a transition curriculum class or coursework, and one-half credit earned in an internship.

Leah Voorhies, assistant state superintendent of student support, said the State School Board was "forward thinking" to add a credential that bolster's a student's regular or alternative diploma.

“This is such a great opportunity for students with disabilities to prepare while in school to be employed after high school,” Voorhies said.

While students can earn the credential while in high school, depending on their individual needs and circumstances, federal law allows students to receive special education services until their 22nd birthdays.

In Granite School District, post-high school special education services and programs "look very different" than school-based instruction, Converse said.

"We try to make this program as 'adult' as possible. We try to create a transition process that is multiagency with (Division of Services for People with Disabilities), Vocational Rehab and try to collaborate as much as possible so that safety net does not fall off at the end of their (public school) education," she said.

There is a greater emphasis on workforce preparation and life skills that enable students to live as independently as possible. One of the Jones Center's laboratories is a single-family home, where students learn to launder clothing, basic housekeeping and other skills needed to live independently in the community.

While the Jones Center has vocational training experiences that can give students a taste of the workforce in controlled settings, it is also the launching pad for transitioning into work experiences in the community.

"Because the (Individuals with Disabilities Act) is built on the idea of an individualized education program, we start with what their desires are, what their skills are and what their needs are and then we move from there. We would never say to a student 'These are your choices,' " Converse said.

For example, if a student wanted to become a computer game tester or programmer, "We'd say ‘OK, how are we going to enter that industry? Where is our entry point? How do we make those relationships?’" Converse said.

Once a student has completed educational requirements and vocational training and has entered the workforce, the district's transitional services continue to support them, Milne said.

"We tell them 'Your job becomes the first priority.' Then we work school around that. We don't want to get in the way of the next step," Milne said.

According to the State Board of Education, Utah is one of a few states to enact a board rule that gives students the opportunity to earn credit for coursework related to career development and earn a formal credential regardless of the type or severity of their disabilities.

Milne said it is important not to underestimate the work ethic or ability of students with disabilities.

She confessed that early on she had some reservations with some of the tools and conditions that students encounter in the Jones Center.

"My paradigm has just completely shifted as I've been with this program," Milne said. You come in and ‘What? We're working with knives and mixers and ovens?'"

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Instead of approaching the training opportunities with apprehension, Milne said she looks for innovative ways to make training accessible and meaningful to students regardless of their disabilities. Sometimes that means using assistive technology. Other times, it's building relationships with businesses to encourage them to offer on-site job training.

"I've watched students who are not independent access the community and become independent. It's the most empowering thing in the world," Milne said.