PAES Lab Offers Hands-on Job Experiences to PNW BOCES Students

March 15, 2019

Walden School student Eric Mayerbach’s favorite job is making popcorn and hot chocolate. Classmates Ruben Mojica and Albert Sullivan like Computer Technology tasks. And Collin Scofield enjoys sorting utensils and, in general, doing "good work."

The young men are part of a group of students from Walden and other Putnam | Northern Westchester BOCES programs who are learning real-world skills by “going to work” each week. Their “job site,” – part office, part restaurant, part industrial workspace – is designed to help them gain experience in work and daily life tasks and ease their transition into adult life.
PNW BOCES introduced the innovative Practical Assessment Exploratory System (PAES) to staff last spring after setting up a lab at its Yorktown campus that mimics a work environment. This school year, about 50 students with developmental and cognitive disabilities began using the lab regularly – and educators agree that students can’t get enough of it.

“It’s been a rousing success,” said Assistant Director of Special Education Lisa Hammel. “Initially we were worried that some of the work would frustrate our students, but the kids are loving it. They work hard, they’re responsible and they are always looking for more and more challenges.” The students come from two classes at Walden, four classes at Pines Bridge School and the Collaborative Language Academic and Social Skills class at Somers High School.

At the lab, students are largely treated as they might be at a real job site. They are responsible for clocking in and out, gathering supplies needed for an assignment and trying to perform assigned tasks independently, said Taheera Mushatt, the PAES teaching assistant.  The job tasks cover five specific work areas -- Construction/Industrial, Consumer/Service, Processing/Production, Computer Technology and Business/Marketing – and are part of a curriculum that teaches skills sequentially.

“My students absolutely love the PAES lab,” said teacher Tammy Adams. “They understand that it is teaching them skills for a possible job in the future.” Adams said that her students are gaining an important sense of ownership about their future because they regularly rate both their interest in job tasks and time how long they take to perform them. That student assessment – combined with staff monitoring – is exciting, Hammel said. Staff will use that data to guide vocational internships and ultimately find suitable community placements or paid employment. Moreover, it is giving students with developmental disabilities a chance to explore their interests – as typical teens in general education programs routinely do.

The PAES lab is already showing benefits for both students who are likely to seek paid employment and those unlikely to take that path.

Students showing an aptitude for a job area are getting guidance on honing necessary skills and developing behaviors that make them more employable. They gain independence by learning how to attack a challenging task on their own and how to wait for a “supervisor” when they cannot.

The lab also benefits students who may never pursue paid employment by teaching tasks and behaviors that are useful in daily life. Teacher Laurie Slackman said she has been impressed by the seriousness and persistence shown by students at the lab.

Slackman noted that learning consumer services tasks such as operating a microwave or clearing dishes will help students live more independently in their homes. She said she recently watched a student spend a whole session sorting a packet of papers – a task that was nearly impossible for him because he struggles with fine motor skills. The student, however, viewed the task as his job and kept at it until he completed it – never taking help.  “We’ve seen another side of our students that we don’t see in the classroom,” she said. “It is building their confidence.”

Once a month, students are “paid” after figuring out their hours and salary. Mushatt said the PAES program encourages the development of financial skills by giving students a way to track earnings and manage them. Students can purchase food and other items at a store that recently was added to the lab, which is located in the Yorktown campus’ Apartment for Life Skills building. They can also choose to make a deposit into a “savings account” and save for a larger item.  

Hammel said the hardest part for staff has been stepping back and letting the students show what they are capable of achieving.

“What has surprised me most with all of my students is the fact that they are so independent while they are working,” said Adams. “They really understand that this is preparing them for the future.”  

Agreed Slackman: “When they are there, I can see them shining.”