Special Education Students Dig In to Transform a Green Space and Gain Work Skills at the Same Time

What's Happening
July 22, 2021

When the pandemic curtailed work placement opportunities for certain West Springfield High School special education students, Rebecca Cousins looked close to home to keep learning alive.

There was a section of the campus, recalled Cousins, who is the school’s employment and transition representative, that could do with a little beautification. She knew just the work crew to help. 

So after some planning, and with assistance from community partners and school staff, a cohort of students in the Work Awareness and Transition programs were tasked with transforming an overgrown school courtyard into a space to be proud of.

Over the course of several weeks this spring, new landscaping and gardening skills were taught and mastered.

Weeds were pulled, seeds were planted, beds were tended, and mulch was spread.  

Now, thanks to the hard work of these students with disabilities, a landscaped and lush retreat awaits the returning school community in the fall.  

A female student tends to a flower bed.
Learning new skills: All the West Springfield High School students in the program were able to contribute to the project.

Cousins said, “Everything shut down and there were no job sites in the community. For my students, routine is important so I really wanted to try and maintain some normalcy.

“I was comfortable working outside because of the limited risk of COVID spread and I knew that landscaping was a skill that could be taught and could be useful for these students when they transition from school to the workplace.

“It was my vision to have everyone engaged and that is exactly what happened.”

The purpose of the FCPS Work Awareness Transition program is to provide meaningful training and work experience to students with what is termed low-incidence disabilities who learn best with hands-on activities.  

The students that Cousins and her team worked with during this project have multiple challenges. Some have developmental disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, orthopedic impairments, or autism. But with practice and training, they are learning important employment and independence skills that will help better prepare them for the future. 

Getting the job done: John, Ariana and Yisak worked with other students to transform this green space.
Getting the job done: John, Ariana and Yisak worked alongside other students to transform this green space.

“I like gardening in the courtyard; my favorite part is pulling out the weeds,” said rising 11th grader Yisak Tariku.

For student John Szczepanik, the opportunity has grown his confidence. “They asked, ‘could I help with some mulch' and I said, yes, I can do it! 'Can you help us with weeding?‘ Yes, I can do it."

During a typical school year, work placements are matched to abilities with local businesses, and include Springfield Hilton, Hidden Pond Nature Center, Malek’s Pizza, Abiding Presence and Prince of Peace Lutheran churches, Austin Grill, Safeway, and IHOP.

But of course, the pandemic eliminated all of these traditional opportunities.

Thanks to a little lateral thinking, determination and teamwork, staff and community partners made the project a reality.

Becky Brandt, a school administrator, said ensuring equity of access to all programs is always key.

“What we think of equity, we want our students in the low incidence program at West Springfield High to have the same opportunities as every West Springfield High School student," she said.

Pictures showing how the courtyard looked before and after the students set to work.
See the difference: The students worked hard to weed, tidy and beautify the space.
Some of the work done by FCPS students.

 

The project would have struggled to get going had it not been for a grant from The Foundation for Fairfax County Public Schools.

Money from a 2019-20 work-based learning grant allowed the school to purchase some supplies including a shed and a wheelbarrow. Other supplies were donated by staff, parents, families, and friends.

Learn more about the project by watching this video featuring some of the students, parents, and staff who made the magic happen.