It’s Career and Service Wednesday at Clifford Academy, a designated time of the week when students and staff focus together on employment exploration, teambuilding and vocational projects. Any other day of the week, the hallways typically echo with chatter coming over the faculty radios, but on Wednesdays, it is uncharacteristically calm.
“On our Career and Service Days, the walkie is nearly silent,” says Principal Rene Dickhaut with a chuckle. “Student behavior is at an all-time low, which tells me that engagement is very high.”
Located in Walpole, The Home’s Clifford Academy serves students who have struggled to succeed in a traditional public school setting. These youth typically arrive to campus with complex educational, emotional and behavioral challenges, and often have significant gaps in their educational placements. Clifford Academy’s vocational offerings, Career and Service Wednesdays included, give students an opportunity to experience small class sizes, highly qualified educators, and sometimes, for the very first time, a strength-based approach to learning.
Clifford Academy’s on-site culinary and small machinery programs aim to equip students with transferable knowledge and employable skills that will ultimately support them in the workforce after graduation. Students in the culinary program learn cooking and baking basics, become well-versed in flavor profiles from across the globe and get an introduction to the food service industry, while those in small machinery get experience with fundamental car maintenance, CNC modeling, carpentry and more. It isn’t abnormal to catch machinery students changing the oil in a teacher’s car, or to even find them and Instructor Lawrence Thompson tuning up the principal’s motorcycle.
Culinary Instructor and former sous chef Rose Pelati takes pride in teaching students how to be resourceful and problem solvers through her cooking lessons.
“When we cook together, we are doing so much more than cooking,” says Rose. “We’re learning how to recover from mistakes, how to provide for ourselves and others, how to budget, grow our food in the school garden and use coping mechanisms when we need a break; these are things that will hopefully enrich students’ lives far beyond their time with me.”
Rose and her fellow vocational team members work with students who are enrolled at Clifford Academy during the day, as well as with youth from the campus’ two residential programs, Hailer House and Merrill House, through the school’s afternoon summer program. This is the first year Clifford Academy has attempted an afternoon program of this scale, where students who attend other local schools, but live onsite, can participate in cooking, art, gym and small machinery classes three times a week. So far, the classes have been a huge hit.
Forty miles east of Walpole, in Plymouth, The Home’s COVE School is also providing a space for students to thrive with robust vocational offerings of their own, including a culinary program (with a newly renovated industrial kitchen!), an equine studies program and exciting plans for the launch of a horticulture and woodworking curriculum in the near future.
At The COVE School, staff work to integrate vocational learning into all core classes, so that academic and vocational frameworks are embedded together. This enables teachers to expose students to vocational programming from all directions, see where their strengths lie and to guide them into the vocational program that suits them best.
“The most important thing we can do is to prepare our kids for what they are going to experience when they leave here,” says Vocational Coordinator Beth Christensen of The COVE School. “If they are more prepared for the world than they were when they got here, then we have done something right.”
For both schools, building community partnerships to secure additional internship and volunteer opportunities is of utmost importance. Currently, The COVE School has internship placements with Gather, a restaurant in Pembroke, and Equestrian Element in Rochester, while Clifford Academy has a group of students interning at New Life Furniture Bank in Walpole, though transportation challenges have been a hurdle. Both Beth and Vocational Coordinator JoAnn McDade of Clifford Academy are dedicated to expanding these initiatives, and they are working to establish new relationships in their areas.
“The more variety of off-site learning opportunities we have, the more areas of interests we can help students explore,” says JoAnn. “For example, I once had a student who was interested in cooking with different types of meats, so we visited a local butcher. This man invited us in, took the time to really share his profession, and we had the best day. This special touch, that one personal connection, has now inspired my student to be a butcher. That day gave him a direction that is realistic, and he now has a feasible goal. If we can replicate these sorts of experiences with other businesses, that would be incredible.”
For youth who have often never experienced what it feels like to excel at school, the opportunities within these vocational programs to grow, learn and open new doors can have a profoundly positive impact. One may wonder how a program for struggling youth could be so successful? According to Principal Dickhaut, the answer is pretty straightforward:
“When you take the time to explore a student’s interest, match their interest, and support them to apply that interest properly, your kids are going to do well. Our job is simply to catch our students being awesome and they are often so, so awesome.”