The Shearim Work Study Program is designed for high school students with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Students are given an opportunity to engage with the world, learn important life skills, and derive satisfaction and joy from serving their community.
Sulam is a community organization serving the needs of children with a broad range of learning differences in the Greater Washington area. Currently hosted at Berman Hebrew Academy, and with plans to expand to other Jewish schools in the area, Sulam students are included in general education classrooms and learn alongside their peers while receiving the necessary educational supports to ensure a high standard of Jewish education.
Shearim, a program within Sulam, is geared toward students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Shearim students are taught a core curriculum, plus life skills and vocational studies.
The Shearim Work Study Program is designed to introduce high school students to life as independent, responsible young adults who make a contribution to society. It is our belief that successful integration into the workforce provides students with meaning and purpose. In turn, the community is given the opportunity to appreciate, include and embrace those who learn differently.
Beginning in tenth grade, Shearim students are taught to develop and operate a small business within the safety and security of their school setting. One example is called “Taste A Muffin,” a muffin baking business named and operated solely by Shearim students. Students were taught how to create a business plan that included a budget, a marketing strategy, recipes, purchasing, point of sale strategies and reinvestment.
Students quickly realized that some flavors sold more successfully than others, that placing flyers (created by Shearim students themselves) in varied places around the school, and smiling and welcoming customers had positive effects. Emailing news of the sale was also found to be a valuable means to increase sales. In addition, students learned to give correct change, using the math concepts they are taught in the classroom. They learned to save enough money from sales to reinvest in the business in order to replenish supplies as needed. Upper school Shearim teacher Mrs. Sabina Radin uses Torah based principles to discuss business ethics such as the importance of honesty, giving the correct amount of change, and giving a percentage of the net profit to a charity the students mutually agree upon.
With this significant learning experience accomplished throughout their sophomore and junior years, Shearim students are considered primed to enter the real world workforce with the support of a job coach, and community business leaders.
During their senior year, Shearim students are placed in internships at a number of local businesses (these have included a pizza store, a grocery store, and a synagogue). Travel training helps students learn the local public transportation system and ensures their ability to arrive at work on time. Once at their job sites, Shearim students receive job coaching support from their teachers, and their work supervisors, all of whom are invested in their success.
Students learn the important skills of following directions, taking initiative, positive communication with co-workers and working in collaboration, and contributing to customer satisfaction. Back at school, students are required to keep a journal of their work experiences so they can reflect on both positive and negative experiences and learn the important skill of problem solving when they find a task challenging. Students communicate weekly via email with their supervisor to ensure they are prepared for the work day tasks. Throughout the semester, students are regularly given job evaluations by their teachers and supervisors.
Supervisors of Shearim students have reported remarkable improvement over time at their work sites. One student, a shy and reticent young man, has learned to ask questions when he is uncertain of how to perform a task.
Another student, who has struggled with “over friendliness” is beginning to grasp the concept of personal space. Furthermore, students learn the importance of repeating directions given to them so that they are certain they fully understand the instructions from their supervisors. One student placed at a pizza store has shown extraordinary signs of improvement, performing many of her tasks with little or no supervision. This student is fond of working in the kitchen and plans to pursue a cooking career in the future.
A component of the Work Study Program that has been challenging is finding stores and restaurants that will employ Shearim students. Many of the larger retailers have corporate policies that prohibit the stores from hiring students under a certain age, while other retailers are concerned about potential liabilities. We are still searching for a larger variety of Work
Study sites for the future. The owners of the stores and restaurants where students are currently working have been extremely pleased with the performance of each of our students and do not regret participating in the Shearim Work Study program. In fact, they have reported an unexpected, but profound benefit – their regular employees have developed a new sensitivity to people with disabilities.
Throughout the Work Study program, Shearim students have shown significant growth and maturity that they likely would not have experienced had they not participated in this program. The vocational and professional experience they have gained will surely be beneficial as they seek employment post graduation.