APPLETON – Thinking back to his first week of work at Huzzard Data Systems, Austin Wells remembers the pang of disappointment when he just barely missed his goal of configuring 15 scanners. Hey did 12.
Wells talked with his boss, Gary Jahnke, who reassured him that the goal was just a number and everyone misses their target at some point. He may not have hit it that first week, but now, almost a year into the job, Wells is exceeding his goals — his single-day record is 27 scanners — and learning how to work with more complicated devices.
“We feel Austin’s happy,” said his mother, Mary Wells. “He feels successful and that ultimately what we want: for him to feel satisfied with where he’s at.”
Austin, who has high-functioning autism, has found success since graduating from high school, working 15 hours a week at Huzzard and taking classes part-time at Fox Valley Technical College. But those are just stepping stones to the 18-year-old’s real dream: being a choir teacher.
Austin’s family moved from rural Alabama in 2008 to have access to better therapy services for Austin’s brother, Wyatt, who has a more severe form of autism. They were going to move to a bigger city in Alabama, but decided on Wisconsin because of the autism support available in the area. It also helped that Austin’s uncle, Scott Wells, played for the Green Bay Packers at the time.
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Mary said she’d heard the Appleton Area School District was a good option when they were researching districts in the area. She was pleased with the schools Austin attended in the district and his case worker in high school was “fabulous.” Between the district and Austin’s relationship with Jahnke, Mary feels Austin was well prepared for life after graduation.
Since Austin’s graduation in May 2021, the district has added even more supports to help students in special education in their transition to life after high school and finding their own definition of success.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobless rate among people with disabilities is twice that of people without disabilities.
“One of our goals in the district has been, ‘How do we continue to make sure students are successful beyond graduation day?’ and that looks different for each student,” said Polly Vanden Boogaard, Appleton’s assistant superintendent of student services.
From buddy to boss
Austin’s shifts at Huzzard start at noon. He walks in, greeting Jahnke and his coworker friends as he heads to the fridge to store his packed lunch. After washing or sanitizing his hands, Austin bangs the mini gong that sits next to the conference table, letting everyone know that he’s ready to get to work.
Not only has Austin been given the nickname of “502 Master” because of his speed and accuracy with configuring a particular type of scanner, but he’s also known to break into song — “Wake me up before you go go, don’t leave me hanging on like a yo-yo” — at any point during the day.
Austin and Jahnke knew each other long before they started working together. Jahnke was Austin’s buddy for about 10 years with the Miracle League of the Fox Valley, a baseball program for kids with disabilities.
When Austin was getting ready to graduate from Appleton North High School, Jahnke talked with him and his mom about having Austin work at Huzzard.
After that, Austin filled out an application and pulled out the resume he’d made in his senior communication class.
In the past year, he has has configured hundreds, maybe even more than a thousand, scanners. He’s become such an expert that he has no problem teaching someone else the process, including the tricks he’s learned to be fast and efficient.
Usually he sets a timer each time he starts on a new scanner, but this time he didn’t, for teaching purposes. First, he opened the program on his desktop computer that he needs to complete the process. Once everything is set up on his computer, he takes the label off the box holding the scanner.
As he’s carefully removing the scanner from plastic wrap and setting up the power cord, he says, “I’m really enjoying working here. I’m having a blast.”
It can be stressful at times — like when he was learning how to configure a more complicated device a few months ago — but overall, he said, he finds the work rewarding.
He runs a few tests to make sure the scanner is working as it should before he wraps the power cord back up and neatly tucks everything back into the box, affixing the correct labels and inserting a content slip that he signs with his initials, “AW at the bottom.
When he’s not configuring scanners, he enjoys going out to lunch with his coworker friends. Being a burger connoisseur, Austin loves when they go to Milwaukee Burger Company or Draft Gastropub, which he thinks have some of the best burgers in town.
Austin’s favorite day at Huzzard was when he and Jahnke spoke to students from Appleton East High School at the PAES Lab, a new career readiness program that the district introduced last year. He told them about his job and life after graduation.
After that, a woman who works at the business next door came over to say hello and Austin told her about his trip to the PAES Lab. She told Austin he’s an inspiration — something that still chokes him up a bit to remember.
Austin said he feels like an inspiration “because I’m really kind and sweet to all my friends and a lot of people.”
Community connections, like the one Austin has with Jahnke, are a big part in helping students in special education find a good fit after they leave the school system. While Austin found that through Miracle League, the Appleton school district has other bridges to make those connections, too.
Appleton’s PAES Lab is a proactive way to give students work experience
“Transitioning” is the term used in special education for moving students from the school system to college, work, trade school or whatever else best serves them after their time in public school. Students with a disability have a right to a free, appropriate public education until they graduate or turn 21, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.
In Wisconsin, developing a transition plan starts at age 14 for all students who have Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, explained Bob Woodford, transition coordinator for Appleton schools.
At that age, many students may not know what work or postsecondary education interests them, so staff try to get a general idea of where the student sees their life going.
They may ask, “In general, what do you hope to do after school? Do you think you’d like to work or go on to more schooling?”
There are also surveys students are asked to fill out to assess their plans and goals for the future. One survey, for example, has six questions asking about career goals, transportation and housing.
Transition plans are reviewed annually and sketch out the student’s life, from employment to independent living skills such as laundry and cooking. In addition to goals, the transition plan outlines who may help the student achieve them, whether it’s their family or an outside service like a job coach.
And it’s not just about getting students to graduation. It’s about giving them the tools to have successful lives well beyond their time in K-12 education.
One of those tools the Appleton school district added last summer is the PAES Lab.
PAES, which stands for practical assessment exploration system, simulates a work environment for students to explore five different career paths. It’s a way for students in special education to test-drive jobs from electrical work to sewing while earning elective credits. The Appleton lab, located in City Center Plaza, is one of just 25 in Wisconsin, according to PAES, the organization that designed PAES Labs.
Laura Eckrose, a special education teacher, works with students in the PAES Lab. She not only supervises students through the different career path simulations, but also helps identify life skills they may need and can learn in the lab, such as making soapy water to do dishes, how to hammer in a nail or how to shop for pipes.
The five career paths are broad, with more specific jobs within them. There’s consumer/service, processing/production, construction/industrial, computer technology and business/marketing.
The specific jobs and skills range from alphabetizing to data entry to custodial.
Each career path has different levels, so students start with simple tasks and work their way up to more complicated work, using guided instruction sheets that allow them to work on their projects independently.
One consumer/service career path is food measurement. For that, the first level has students weigh out items using whole pounds. They familiarize themselves with the scale and then practice filling bags with a pound of popcorn, 2 pounds of beans and so on, using whole numbers.
When they’ve worked up to the highest level, students weigh items and calculate total cost. They may be asked to find the total cost of 2 pounds and 3 ounces of popcorn that costs $1.25 per pound, for example.
Helping students plan for life after the structure and support of public education isn’t easy. It requires staff to know students well individually — their strengths, skills, interests and opportunities.
One student Eckrose works with loves washing windows, she said. So, part of her job is to find a way to connect that student with an opportunity to pursue that interest in the working world.
Appleton connects students with job shadows at local businesses and even has an internship program with Ascension at St. Elizabeth Hospital. But the PAES Lab is proactive, Vanden Boogaard said.
It not only gives staff the chance to see students’ skills in action, but it also gives students the chance to say, ‘Hey, I really enjoyed wiring an outlet,’ or ‘I really have a knack for sewing,’ before they even step foot in a business.
Data collected through the PAES Lab shifts the question from what the student would like to do to how the school district can connect the student with the right people to get them into that job or industry. And the district isn’t just trying to help these students find any job; they want students to find competitive employment.
“The school is charged with an awful lot,” Woodford said.
Reach AnnMarie Hilton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 920-370-8045. Follow her on Twitter at @hilton_annmarie†