taysfTAYSF Feature Article:

Bridges from School to Work, S.F. Youth Commission

MAR 2014 Newsletter

Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society,
says the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004.

Despite their right to participate or contribute to San Francisco society, youth and young adults with special needs are up against serious challenges. Navigating an able-bodies system is a challenge for any transitional aged youth. But add a disability or significant physical or mental issue, and the barriers to services grow exponentially larger.

We continue to be inspired by job readiness and workforce programs like Bridges from School to Work who celebrate and support young people with special needs, and the young advocates like Luisa Sicairos, a San Francisco Youth Commissioner and City-wide TAY Advisory Member, who see the experiences of 5,000 young people in San Francisco with special needs as an opportunity, not only for these young people, but for the lives of others.

Luisa’s Hero

Supervisor Jane Kim elected Luisa Sicairos to represent District 6, which covers the Tenderloin, SOMA and Treasure Island, as one of a dozen 12-23 years-olds on the San Francisco Youth Commission. But it’s the Health, Wellness and Education Committee, where Luisa’s policy work hits closest to home.

Luisa and other committee members are working to create more awareness in San Francisco high schools about youth with special needs. Their goal is to implement a special needs curriculum to teach all students about mild disabilities, like ADHD, and severe ones like Cerebral Palsy, which Luisa’s younger sister—her hero—has had since birth.

Luisa’s nineteen year-old sister is in a transitional program at Phillip Sala Burton high school, due to her severe disability. Luisa takes care of her the most out of the family, and is like her second mother.

“I had hardships in school,” said Luisa, who lives in SOMA and is now in her last semester at SFSU, “but seeing the hardship in school that my sister has dealt with, I know that it was nothing like what I had.”

In observing her sister’s special needs classes, Luisa noticed that the teacher would have the students just sit from 8am to 4pm.

“I know she has a severe disability,” Luisa said, “but the teacher wasn’t giving them activities to do. I got really upset. I’m trying to voice out for her, trying to make sure other young people aren’t facing this.”

Luisa said her sister’s experience was typical, and that the current high school classes for special need students in San Francisco are not the best. California has made major changes to address the issues that these students face, Luisa said, however, they have fallen behind in continuing to change for the better education for these youth.

“There are other states in the U.S. that have progressed in their school programs so no student can be left behind,” Luisa said. “I believe California needs to step it up again and ensure that youth with special needs are given a fair chance in succeeding no matter what type of disability they have.”

Luisa said that many special needs students are not only lacking opportunities to learn in the classroom, but also denied one of the most important opportunities in school: the opportunity to socialize.

“No matter what disability, ADHD or cerebral palsy, they are not being socialized in their communities, not included,” Luisa said. She wants to change this.

Right now, commissioners from the committee Luisa sits on, and three youth from the School Advisory Council from SFUSD, are working to create a new curriculum within the health classes, currently mandatory in all schools, that would teach awareness about the differences youth with disabilities and special needs come in with, so that a typical student and a student with special needs have better ways of learning or interacting together.

“They are just regular people,” Luisa said. “When other people react differently to them, they understand you are reacting different, not treating them the same. They understand they are not included in the larger picture. It’s really sad.”

This would be a way to affect all students, and some Youth Commission students mentioned that a class could provide something to students that they can take with them outside the school as well. When young people with special needs and typical students interact, not only do the the special needs students develop better, but the typical students learn more and have higher GPAs.

Luisa said that one of the reason special need students in SFUSD sit for hours and hours without any interaction with the general student population is because the typical students don’t really understand students with autism or physical needs, and mutual understanding would increase interaction with those with special needs and other young people.

Luisa and other committee members from the Youth Commision aim to raise this awareness through health classes as a first step, which “might seem small,” Luisa admits, “but it’s feasible, and its only one mile stone we have to make in order to get to the big goal!”

The committee recognizes the need to take baby steps, like creating a solution that can be passed in City Hall, and that can motivate others to join the cause to improve the lives of future special needs youth.

In addition to this curriculum project, the committee members have met with CBOs who work with young people with special needs, including Support for Families of Children with Disabilities in the Mission, to create support groups and teach parents and other people to be aware of the rights that students with special needs have in school settings, parks, etc.

“It appears that a lot of parents are not aware of social services that are available,” Luisa said. So this March, Support for Families with Disabilities hosted an info and research conference to help parents and families to talk and work with professionals and community organizations.

The committee is also collaborating with Support for Families of Children with Disabilities to see if their curriculum idea is on the right track and is feasible, and working with Deidre Durling at SFUSD.

The long term goal of the committee’s special needs curriculum for SFUSD is for all schools—elementary, middle, and high school and beyond—to have more inclusive programs, in which students of all shapes and sizes, every type of learning style have a safe space to interact with each other and learn.

For model example, Lowell has a program that puts students with special needs with typical students who guide them around the school, helps them be more social during lunch time or break time. The committee wants to make that more available in different high schools as well.

“We are hoping this will eventually lead to more inclusion in the future throughout all the schools,” Luisa said. “I really think that a lot of these young people don’t get the opportunity they deserve.”

But what about inclusion of special needs young people once they leave school?

Bridges from School to Work

BridgesFromSchooltoWork_logo Luisa’s sister and all youth and adults ages 16-24 with a disability are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as their non-disabled peers, according to Bridges from School to Work, a national employment agency for youth with special needs.

Bridge from School to Work helps youth with special needs to prepare for their first job, and works with employers to ensure these young people are hired, and stay hired. Bridges youth tend to be 17-22 years-old, and the oldest youth are 24.

“We are not an internship,” said Anthea Charles, regional director of Bridges in San Francisco and Oakland. All youth are placed in real jobs in the private sector, the vast majority of whom find a job in customer service, retail, food service, or entertainment, Anthea said.

Bridges staff go out into the private sector, find out who is hiring, meet people in a position to hire and build relationships before they let a youth apply.

“Because we are a competitive program,” Anthea said, “employers know they are in control, so it loosens them up.”

If an employer does not hire a young person from Bridges, the staff asks the employer what they are looking for, and what Bridges can do to better match a young person with that employer’s needs in the future.

Anthea said employers are usually more able to recognize that an applicant or employee has a physical disability, and therefore requires more accommodation on the job.

But since learning and behavior disabilities are harder to identify, and young people don’t have to declare anything about their disability when they apply, the need for more accommodation is harder for an employer to recognize.

The majoritiy of youth at Bridges have learning disabilities or behavioral problems, not physical disabilities. Bridges recruits young people from special education classes through a relationship with SFUSD and Department of Rehabilitation.

“Some young people can’t read very well,” Anthea said, “but they can get the job done. Or an employer may ask ‘why aren’t they getting it’ or ‘why do I have to repeat instructions three times?’”

Barriers  to entering the workforce for special needs students were the reason why the Mariott Foundation founded Bridges from School to Work in 1989. San Francisco was the second Bridges program to open; the first was in Montgomery County.

Now Bridges has branched out into a national program, and on top of the Marriott foundation, the San Francisco Bridges from School to Work receives funding from DCYF.

“We’ve transformed Bridges from School to Work as the job market transformed,”said Anthea, who started at Bridges from School to Work seventeen years ago.

Now, things move much more quickly in the job process. Youth need to be ready and interviewing much more quickly once a job is posted, since so many people are applying for that one position.

“This speed comes as a shock, and sometimes youth slip out of the program,” Anthea said. “But, we’re not jail. If a young person is not ready, they can come back. Once they try landing a job out there on their own, they always come back.”

Bridges is not always able to connect its young people into private sector jobs. Many of their youth live in precarious situations, and their family life can cause more difficulties than their disabilities.

For instance, a young person may struggle to find their Social Security card, due to a disordered family life, and that alone could be a dealbraker regardless of whether or not employer can support the young person.

And sometimes employers kick Bridges out of their workplace, or won’t let them be involved in supporting the young person at their job. In that case, Bridges staffers try to negotiate with the employer to allow Bridges to be available to help, but not always present.

“We don’t really accept no,” Anthea said, adding that if employers give Bridges staff a hard ‘no, we don’t want to work with your young people,’ then they wait for a few months, and try again.

Bridges offers two to three individualized sessions per week to help young people learn soft job skills for about 3-6 weeks. Bridges even starts the job interview process as soon as a young person starts at Bridges.

“Say we know Target is hiring right when a young person starts the program, they won’t miss out on that job opportunity,” Anthea said.

Bridges also has a boot camp every Wednesday, with topics that include interview prep, preparing resume and application, and answering the now-universal personality questions of retail and food-service applications.

“Some questions are really intrusive and bizzare,” Anthea said about personality questions on the new unviersal job applications. “Really, all of this to run a cash register?”

Young people at Bridges spend the majority of their time getting used to expressing their individual talents as an adult, and building their confidence. Bridges also works on how to keep your job.

“It’s one thing to get a job,” Anthea said, “but not getting fired is also important.”


This article appears in the March 2014 TAYSF Newsletter on Youth with Disabilities or Special Needs. If you would like to receive TAYSF newsletters every month, please sign up.