Taking Pride in a Job Well Done
by Susan Neuhalfen
If you’ve been to the Golden Triangle Mall during the day, chances are you’ve run into an amazing group of high school students in a work-study program.
These aren’t your typical teenagers. These kids face challenges every day that many cannot comprehend. They not only face these challenges here at their jobs, they have proven to overcome them with time and a little help from their job coaches as well as the incredible merchants and staff at Golden Triangle Mall.
These are the special education students at the four Denton high schools. Every weekday for one hour, they come to the Golden Triangle Mall to practice honing their occupational skills. While the special education classes at the Denton ISD high schools focus on curriculum that has work-based goals, Mark Scott, DISD Post-Secondary Transition Specialist, believed that nothing could duplicate a real world environment. That is why he and Keri Castillo, Life Skills Teacher and Vocational Adjustment Coordinator at Denton High School, approached Golden Triangle Mall to set up a work-based program.
“Everyone here was open to our ideas and brought in ideas of their own,” said Scott. “The biggest part of the operation is the relationships that are built with the kids, teachers and other merchants.”
Golden Triangle Mall General Manager Matt Ludemann, Marketing Director Carrie Carter and Director of Business Development Teresa Sanders helped create a program for students to job shadow staff and merchants at the mall as well as participate in special events like Mall-O-Ween, Christmas and Easter celebrations.
“These students have taken advantage of this opportunity. They want to learn and they want to be here,” said Ludemann. “They have developed a sense of pride in their assigned tasks that will stay with them in the future.”
The students arrive each day by bus and are met by their job coach. Carrie Carter is also there to greet them with their tasks for the day. 19 year-old Matthew is a senior. Four years ago, making eye contact and completing a sentence for him was difficult. Today, he greets the merchants and staff at Golden Triangle Mall with his trademark pat on the shoulder saying, “Good Job!” to the people he knows.
“When he first came here he wouldn’t shake hands or look me in the eye,” said Carter. “Today, he comes in, gets right to work, speaks in complete sentences and can even exchange money and buy his own food.”
One of his favorite places to get a treat is at Great American Cookies, one of the merchants that works directly with the students. The students help with stacking inventory, washing trays, measuring dough and some even assist in baking brownies and decorating cookies. Robyn Johnson, the manager at Great American Cookies, told a story about the day a new employee was opening the store and the students came to her rescue when she arrived late.
“She was running behind so the students all rallied to set up the entire counter for her,” said Johnson. “They’re really come a long way.”
Another merchant who is involved in the program is Mini-Figs, a family-owned store that buys, sells and trades Legos. The store has the students helping with inventory and they love it.
“They have helped us tremendously,” said storeowner Anthony Bearden. “We sell a lot of Lego parts online so they help us sort so we can find pieces easily. They also helped build the stands for the display cases.”
In addition, the students job shadow those in security and custodial work. They are given a checklist to look for any areas where maintenance may be needed. There is also office work and certainly plenty of work to do around the holidays.
“I thought we’d never finish stuffing all of those Easter eggs,” laughed Castillo. “The kids
loved it, though.”
The program has worked so well that this year Rebecca Persons, Supervisor over Transition Programs for Denton ISD, developed “enterprise” businesses at each high school, including both 18-21-age programs. Golden Triangle Mall agreed to allow the students to merchandise a variety of items at a kiosk entitled “World of Work”. The students came up with a logo and were provided business guidelines by the mall. After a successful trial run, all Denton high schools plus the 18-21 transition programs now hand produce and market a variety of items including organic dog treats, recycled paper gift cards and bookmarks, gift tags, themed buttons and organic sugar scrubs. The merchandise changes seasonally and the students themselves sell the products from the kiosk. Just FYI: anyone who purchases $15 worth of dog treats gets to post their pooch’s picture on the wall next to the kiosk.
“We want all our students in the Denton community showcasing their talents and skills to the public,” said Scott. “Students with disabilities should be seen everywhere.”
This program also helps the students looking for permanent employment after high school. Together with Denton ISD, Golden Triangle Mall held mock interviews with seniors last year, taking them through some questions they would get during an interview and many have been hired as a result of the work.
“We’ve formed a great relationship with these kids so they check in during the summer,” said Carter. “After they graduate, they come back and tell us of their successes.”
Both Golden Triangle Mall and Denton ISD has set the standard for what a program like this should be. Though there are similar programs in other areas in the country, finding a partner like Golden Triangle Mall that is willing to go above and beyond for these kids is unfortunately not common. They are hands on with the students, teaching them about problem solving, social skills and confidence building.
“They have such a sense of pride about working here and the job skills training they receive,” said Carter. “We’re proud to have them here.”
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