Breaking it down, burger by burger

When Summer enters the PAES classroom at the Roanoke Minnick School, she doesn’t meander over to her desk or start gabbing with a friend. She clocks in and gets to work.

For the next hour, she and her high school classmates will be employees and the classroom staff will be their supervisors.

New to Minnick this year, the Practical Assessment Exploration System transforms the classroom into a mini-work environment to help students learn basic career, vocational and life skills in five areas: business/marketing, construction/industrial, consumer/service, processing/production, and computer/technology.

“Helping students learn good work habits and the expectations of the work world is an important part of the program,” says Kim Irvin, the school’s transition coordinator. “Our students struggle with appropriate behavior, so PAES is the perfect fit because it bridges the gap between graduation and employment.”

The five work centers have tools and materials necessary to complete graduated “job cards” that move students along the curriculum. A student working in the consumer service area might be learning how to wrap hamburgers or microwave hot chocolate; another student in the processing and production area might be learning how to assemble pipes. In the planning stages is a system where students earn a real hourly wage–and even a quarterly bonus—so they can learn valuable money management and banking skills.

Students enter the classroom, clock in, pick up a job card, assemble their tools and fill out a work record. The employee and supervisor look over the job before the employee begins the activity. At the end of the activity, the student records the result. If the job was completed correctly the student moves on; if not the students tries the activity again.

“PAES whittles a task down into its simplest form,” says Irvin, “and allows the students to both build on foundational skills and discover which kinds of tasks they like.” Irvin says that students who would not normally enjoy independent work are enthusiastic about ‘going to work’ when they enter the lab.

Students are expected to keep their work stations clean and orderly. Rules are strict and extend outside the PAES lab; if a student isn’t coming to school, he or she must call in sick to a supervisor.

One of the biggest pluses of PAES is the data generated by the card system. Irvin says that she can clearly see students’ productivity and affinities by looking at how they do on the various tasks. “It’s good for families because they learn the areas their child is most interested in and what barriers there may be to success in the workplace.”

“PAES is valuable because it teaches problem-solving and communication, two things that our kids need the most when they leave our schools,” says Terri Webber, director of education. “It’s a great program for any student on any level.”

And she says, ”Because we get a good idea of where students are vocationally, we can help them create meaningful goals for further education or independent living.”

Both Webber and Irvin would like to see the program expand to other Minnick locations as well as to other grade levels. Irvin, who also coordinates community-based learning for students, would like to see the school offer higher levels of vocational education perhaps leading to certification.

“Our kids are so excited about the lab,” says Irvin. “It would be great to build on that excitement and offer them even more.