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A woman picks tomatoes in a greenhouse

Constant Gardeners

In D.C., educators are striving to ensure that their older students with intellectual disabilities are prepared for a vital life opportunity: a job.

February 27, 2019

Susan Brenna

One of the most beautiful public school classrooms you could find is in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The raised ceiling, the sweep of the long room, the light streaming through the room’s window walls all evoke the sparkling feeling of those old-fashioned showrooms where dealers used to sell new cars. Only here, the giant wall hangings show plants and flowers, not Cadillacs.

A dozen students are enrolled in the Workforce Development Center horticulture program at this school, built specially for students with disabilities. They meet each day in this beautiful classroom—and they can’t wait to leave it.

They just want to get to work.

A man teaching in a large classroom
Saskia Kahn

At around 9:30 a.m. on most school days, 19-year-olds Jeanell Ward, Montezz Green, and 10 classmates climb aboard a yellow school bus that takes them from their school, the River Terrace Education Campus, to a campus of the University of the District Columbia (UDC). On a recent wintry Monday, they headed to where UDC hosts the fields and greenhouses of the East Capitol Urban Farm.

Students filed into a familiar greenhouse, dumped their parkas on a plant bench, pulled on gloves and aprons, and set to harvesting the long rows of plants. On this day, they picked 57 pounds of tomatoes. They filled bags with collard leaves that they carefully plucked from stems, following directions not to pick the new leaf buds.

Moving nimbly through the misted, heavy greenhouse air, they operated like a tight crew, laughing at inside jokes, letting their co-workers handle each one’s favorite tasks. Jeanell Ward re-sorted the green tomatoes that landed in the red tomato barrel. Pedro Cassarubia used his broom and spray hose to keep pristine order. Montezz Green, who towers over everyone, including his teachers, was circulating around, looking for anyone to help. Some students were struggling to stabilize the hydroponic tomato vines, suspended from strings. Montezz grabbed the tops of the vines to hold them steady as students picked. “We like being a team,” he said.

Montezz Green wants to get some higher education and work in horticulture. He says, “I’m a powerful kind of person when it comes to helping other people.” Saskia Kahn

This greenhouse could not operate at the level of production it does—distributing thousands of pounds of fresh produce each year to community kitchens—without the well-oiled teamwork of these students. And that is the message that Kelly Custer (D.C. Region ’12) and River Terrace leaders would like every potential employer to hear and understand.

In school districts across the country, millions of young adults with intellectual disabilities leave high school and “graduate to the couch,” in the words of Aimée Cepeda, the founding principal of River Terrace. Federal law requires schools to prepare those who are capable to transition into jobs and enjoy the rewards of working life: pride, independence, money.

But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tells the story of what actually happens to these students once they leave high school. Among Americans without disabilities, 65.7 percent were employed in 2017. Among those with disabilities, fewer than one in 5 had a job.

“For me, the philosophy behind the Workforce Development Center is, let’s discover [students’] abilities. We already know what their challenges are. Let’s discover what they can do.”

Aimée Cepeda

As an instructional coach at River Terrace, Kelly Custer does the detailed and demanding work of personalizing a course of study for each of the approximately 40 workforce development students: differentiating curriculum, applying universal design for learning, creating assessments that meet students where they are. He knows them all, knows their families. He sees them on the weekends when they meet up at arcades, or when their families watch NFL games together on football Sundays. He would be the last person to discount the need for schools to do a better job of transitioning students who are disabled into adulthood.

But in the seven years that he’s taught special education in D.C.—and after having watched Jeanell and Montezz be their own best deal-closers with potential employers—he has come to two conclusions. Yes, educating students with disabilities more holistically is essential. But getting employers to change their assumptions and mindsets is at the root of transformational change. He believes it’s the key to liberating young adults from futures of dependency, wasted potential, and lost hopes.

To illustrate why he thinks this way, Custer describes what typically happens after he meets with potential employers, often after knocking down their doors (“Never be deterred by a ‘no,’ ” he advises. “Just say, ‘We’re coming over for the tour.’ ”) The bosses start out believing that giving jobs or internships to the students “is an act of charity,” Custer says. The critical pivot happens after students go to work, and their bosses come to see them as assets, or sometimes even as their most valuable players.

At the East Capitol Urban Farm in Anacostia, students picked 57 pounds of tomatoes and bags of collard greens bound for community kitchens. Saskia Kahn

“If you’re looking at youth with intellectual disabilities, they are incredibly reliable employees,” says Emily Lehman. She’s the deputy director of SchoolTalk DC, a District nonprofit which helps students with disabilities develop the complex skills it takes to succeed at work, from ordering a Lyft to managing a conversation. Lehman says, “They are phenomenal employees. They come to work on time. They come to work every day. They’re excited to do their jobs and do them well. You couldn’t do better” than to employ them.

Not long ago, 25 members of the Smithsonian Institution’s building and grounds department came to visit the River Terrace horticulture program. They had heard about the work Custer’s students were doing all over the district. Students led the visitors through a PowerPoint presentation, talked about the barriers that hold them back, and toured their visitors around the school gardens and greenhouse.

Today, alumni of River Terrace work for the Smithsonian. If you can open minds at the scale of an institution like that, Custer believes, change ripples out to more employers.

“What Kelly is doing is creating spaces and opportunities for this particular population of young people to demonstrate all that they’re capable of doing,” Principal Aimée Cepeda, says. “For me, the philosophy behind the Workforce Development Center is, let’s discover their abilities. We already know what their challenges are. Let’s discover what they can do.”

Muddy work boots lined up on a shelf
Saskia Kahn

One of the reasons life outcomes are so poor for students who have intellectual disabilities is that they can easily get lost in systems. Of all the students in the U.S. with individual education plans (IEPs), only a small proportion (less than 7 percent) are assessed as having intellectual disabilities.

In recent years, many school districts have launched workforce development programs for students who earn IEP certificates of completion rather than regular diplomas. The initiative has yet to prove itself, and it runs contrary to the practice of not separating out special education students from general students. But Custer argues that giving work experiences to students who have passed their 18th birthdays is inclusion—in the real world. “The more experiences that they have that are typical of their peers and other young adults, the more they’re going to be very social and independent. And that will truly benefit them when they go into situations like employment, when they need social skills.”

Jeanell says she is so much happier here than in her previous general education school. “I was shy. I felt like people judged me.” Here, she says, “I can be myself.”

“I liked this school from the first time I saw it,” Jeanell Ward says. “I like science. It’s a perfect match for me.” Saskia Kahn

Custer had come to these conclusions even before he joined the corps. He grew up in farm country in eastern Washington state, where he was vice president of his high school’s Future Farmers of America club. While attending Seattle Pacific University, he volunteered in a self-contained classroom for autistic students in West Seattle, then worked in a program for adults with disabilities. He earned a master’s degree in philosophy at Duke University. Then he returned west to a rural Idaho community where he worked in an alternative school.

After joining the corps, he taught special education at a D.C. middle school. There he met the people running the nonprofit SchoolTalk DC. He got involved in SchoolTalk’s effort to train district students to lead their own IEP meetings; one of his students starred in a documentary on the topic. Custer also took a summer job with SchoolTalk DC during the first year when the organization provided needed supports (like travel training) to students with disabilities participating in the District’s federally-funded Summer Youth Employment Program. (Employers received disability awareness training.)

Custer remembers that they “worked a lot on disclosure, on how students disclose their disability to an employer,” he said. “It’s a sensitive subject. Most have had no real discussion that they have a disability, and what it is.”

“It’s a massive task. But if we really want to change the outcomes, we need to let [students’] needs drive their learning, or else they’re just going to continue to lapse.”

Kelly Custer

Staff at the D.C. Public Schools central office who knew Custer through SchoolTalk DC urged him to apply when the district opened River Terrace with a transitional program for older students. Because the school starts with third grade, this was a singular opportunity for Custer to work with a supportive principal to change pedagogical practices in a way both believe is critical. Together, Custer, Cepeda, and the school faculty are trying to reverse-engineer the curriculum to build workforce readiness into the elementary grades, to help kids develop pre-cursory habits, skills and mindsets. Through communities of practice like the Institute for Educational Leadership, they’re sharing how they iterate as they go.

And now that Kelly has moved from the classroom to instructional coaching, he sees an opportunity to influence and learn from educators across the District. “It takes working at the grassroots level of teachers talking to teachers, and then going up a level to systems change, getting the district to recognize the needs and connect the right people,” Custer says. “It’s a slow process with so many competing factors and variables, but we have to do it.”

Principal Cepeda says that back when this school was opening, one of the first choices the staff made was to focus older students less on academic remediation and more on pre-employment and functional life skills. Common Core-aligned academics are a part of school; the horticulture students spent an hour one recent morning annotating a passage on conflict. But it takes time to teach students the basics of what it’s like to have a job; to help them learn to self-advocate and explore; then to guide them through applying for jobs or specialized higher education.

“It’s a massive task,” Custer says. “But if we really want to change the outcomes, we need to let their needs drive their learning, or else they’re just going to continue to lapse.”

Collard Leafs at the Workforce Development Center Horticulture Program
Saskia Kahn

So where can you find the River Terrace horticulture students out and about in the D.C. region?

You can find them at community and farmers’ markets, where they sell some of the produce they grow at the university food hubs and on a 100-acre farm in Maryland. They volunteer with the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, potting plants. They grow native plants in their school greenhouse for the Anacostia Watershed Society. Then they pull on their boots and waders and plant their seedlings by the river to restore shrinking wetlands. 

They’ve interned at the U.S. Botanic Garden. They are indispensable to the staff of DC Greens, an organization that trains District schools to grow gardens. DC Greens distributes seedlings to schools, and they also distribute produce grown by regional farmers to supplement the schools’ garden markets. Someone has to sort and pack out all those plants and food. The horticulture students do it. “Kelly has been really proactive about figuring out how to get his students more deeply involved with the work of DC Greens,” says co-founder and education director Sarah Holway. Once when they missed a day, Holway asked herself, “How do I do this without them?"

A man pushes a wheelbarrow in a greenhouse
Saskia Kahn

Custer has painstakingly built every one of these partnerships where students can be their own ambassadors. Yet he feels how far there is yet to go.

His school has been partnering with UDC for three years, but he’s still trying to work out how students can earn a credential from the College of Agriculture. One of his biggest struggles is to get students who excel, like Jeanell and Montezz, into college. The Mason LIFE program at George Mason University in Virginia is tailor-made for them. They could have the residential college experience they crave and their families could visit.

But tuition is around $15,000 a semester. And Custer and Cepeda have found that the district-supported scholarship funds disqualify students with IEP certificates of completion in place of diplomas. They’ve encouraged Jeanell and Montezz to apply this year, while they work to change those rules.

Custer says change can feel slow, and outcomes are still not where they should be. For every student who exits the Workforce Development Center straight into a job, two do not. But that record is improving, and it certainly beats national averages. He says, “let’s just hang in there.”

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