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By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Post
Monday and Friday mornings during the school year, George Gibson and Keri High left the campus at Jesse Carson High School and traveled to Mr. Gatti’s restaurant in Salisbury.
The high school seniors weren’t necessarily craving a slice of pizza, an all-you-can-eat salad or a turn in front of a video game.
They had jobs to do, and owner Valerie Habeeb always looked forward to their arrival.
On this particular day before Mr. Gatti’s opened, the Carson High kids filled salt and pepper shakers, vacuumed and wiped down furniture over their 1.5-hour stay.
“I’m going to miss it this summer,” Habeeb said. “It works great both ways.”
Gibson and High were each finishing up 240 hours of community-based vocational training, one of the requirements of their Occupational Course of Study.
Over their high school careers, Gibson, High and other higher functionally disabled students in this particular curriculum also must complete 300 hours of school-based vocational training and 360 hours of paid employment.The 900 work hours are in addition to their classroom requirements, which include 15 core courses in English, math, health and physical science, occupational preparation, life skills, social studies and art discipline.
They also must have passing grades in four career/technical education courses.
The Occupational Course of Study aims at meeting the needs of a small group of students with disabilities who need a greatly modified curriculum focusing on post-school employment and independent living.
It is one of four courses of study a student with disabilities may complete to graduate with a high school diploma in North Carolina.
“It’s a diploma pathway,” said Kathleen Miller, transition coordinator for Rowan-Salisbury Schools, which has approximately 100 students in the OCS program.
Carson High has two OCS classrooms, manned by two teachers and their assistants. The program has 22 students in all ó two seniors, six juniors, six sophomores and eight freshmen.
Carson High’s numbers are similar to other high schools in the county. Four other schools also have two OCS classrooms each. Salisbury has three.
Denon Hogue serves as “job coach” at Carson High, coordinating some of the at-school hours and transporting and supervising the students to their community-based jobs, such as Mr. Gatti’s.
Besides Mr. Gatti’s, other employers providing community-based hours for Carson High this year have included the Food Lion in Landis, Grace Bible Church, Bostian Elementary School and Cultivated Colours, where Keri had been getting some of her after-school work.
“The students cannot get a diploma without the support of the businesses and the community,” said Miller, the school system’s transition coordinator.
Rowan-Salisbury Schools has roughly 25 businesses working with the OCS program. An additional eight businesses work with the schools’ more involved exceptional children students.
The program has been in place since 2001.
All competitive employment placements, including summer jobs, must have prior approval from Miller, so the hours can count toward graduation. For the competitive hours, such as Keri’s at Cultivated Colours, the students must be paid at or above minimum wage.
Hogue drove the bus to Mr. Gatti’s and provided the on-site supervision, which Habeeb said is important.
Hogue knew the students’ abilities, and his being there made it possible for her to perform other tasks and even leave the restaurant if she had to, Habeeb says.
The students often performed jobs that Mr. Gatti’s regular staff found difficult to get to every day.
“It’s been a benefit to us,” Habeeb said. “It helps us out and takes that load off. And you get more out of it than free labor.”
Hogue smiled when he talked about Gibson and High.
“George is a character,” he said. “Very funny. A prankster, I guess you would say.”
High is much more laid back.
“To get her to talk, you have to pull it out of her,” Hogue said.
As one might expect, employers and their staffs look forward to the students’ hours after they get to know them over the school year. The same goes for the students.
“They build relationships with some of the other employees,” Hogue said.
Each student must complete a career portfolio documenting that they’ve met their requirements. The portfolio takes the place of their exit exam requirement.
They also can bypass a computer skills test, though it must specify in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) the technology and computer skills they have yet to master.
Enrolling in the Occupational Course of Study is an IEP team decision, which ultimately must have the students’ and parents’ agreement.
The Occupational Course of Study is an outgrowth of North Carolina’s federally funded “Systems Change Transition Project.”
Businesses interested in participating in the Occupational Course of Study should contact Kathleen Miller, transition coordinator for Rowan-Salisbury Schools, at 704-639-3064.
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Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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