By Emily Williams
At Vestavia Hills High School, students with special needs are not enrolled in “special education,” their courses are a part of the school’s Exceptional Education Department.
According to officials with the department, the team of educators and support staff work to create a comprehensive learning experience that often takes students out of the classroom and into the real world to learn a trade through a work instruction program.
One of the partnering businesses in the community is Western Supermarket on Rocky Ridge Road.
“We have several students who work there throughout the year to learn the job skills necessary to successfully hold a job after high school,” said department head Denise Brundege.
For Western General Manager Steve Shelton, the partnership was a no-brainer. Shelton is a former physical education teacher who worked closely with students with special needs during his education career.
“I realize what it takes to get a kid who may not have all of the tools mentally to learn a new skill,” he said. “It’s just like trying to knock down three pins with a bowling ball in a gym class. It’s all about getting that kid who is in the wheelchair to find a way to knock them down. These kids are capable of a lot more than people would think.”
Western has been a community-based work instruction site for about five years. Shelby said that, though he may not be able to hire all of the kids who enter his store, he does his best to find a place for 10 percent to 20 percent of the students.
“If they are good workers and I have the space to accommodate them, then there is no reason for me not to find a place for someone,” he said. One of his workers has been with him for at least five years and in that time worked her way up to manning the salad bar.
When an exceptional education student enters the doors of his store to work, Shelton has them begin with the basics such as stacking stock and cleaning. Some of these tasks may seem basic, Shelton said, but a person who can do a great job of cleaning is an essential member of his staff.
Those he keeps on after they graduate from VHHS usually are at the front of his store, bagging groceries and engaging customers.
“They are the last people that the customers see before they leave our store,” he said. “They do a great job of interacting with others and making a real connection and develop better social skills.”
He added that his staff members with special needs often are the people who regular customers recognize and flock to when they are shopping.
“Not everybody who comes here has the ability to bag groceries,” Shelton said. “There are just certain kids who don’t have the mental capacity, but those who can should have that opportunity. There are always going to be obstacles and instances where they drop the yogurt or something like that, but everybody makes mistakes.”
Brundege said the department employs a work instructor, currently Nancy Crook, who is responsible for reaching out to the community to find a variety of positions that seem suitable for the students.
“Everybody deserves the opportunity to learn a trade,” Shelton said. “I’m very happy that I can help these students grow and learn new skills and a sense of empowerment that comes with working and the pride of doing a good job. It’s very important for me from a personal standpoint, not just on the business side.”
As VHHS welcomes a new year of students, Shelton will welcome some new workers and, maybe, a future staff member.