Ready to Work Academy at College of the Canyons Takes an Innovative Approach to Teach Vocational Skills to Special Needs Students

Students from the pilot Ready to Work Academy at College of the Canyons training at Starbucks

The Ready to Work Academy at College of the Canyons is putting people with special needs on the path to self-sufficiency. 

College of the Canyons (COC) and Carousel Ranch, a local equestrian therapy and vocational training program in Santa Clarita, worked together to launch the pilot Ready to Work Academy in June 2019. The program provides equitable access to education and inclusion in the workforce to a population that often faces barriers to both. 

While Carousel Ranch also provides equestrian therapy, that was not part of the new academy, which drew on their expertise in vocational training for people with special needs. The program began with a pilot class of six students with special needs who received Certificates of Completion from COC for the Customer Service for Retail, Food Service & Hospitality course.

Classes met twice a week for more than 15 weeks. Students spent one day training for two and a half hours in the classroom at the College of the Canyons campus. They spent three hours on a different day gaining work experience at Starbucks and Holiday Inn Express, the business partners for the program. 

A second Ready to Work Academy cohort started in early 2020, with the addition of an entry-level Warehouse Fulfillment and Logistics course and business partner AMS Fulfillment. But due to COVID-19, it was put on hold.

The RTW Academy program began again in April this year with both pathways and 10 students. All three business partners returned, and Bluemark joined as a business partner for the Warehouse Fulfillment and Logistics course. More courses are in development.

Preparing Young Adults for Life After High School

Carousel Ranch developed the Ready to Work (RTW) program to prepare young adults with special needs for what’s next after high school. However, Executive Director Denise Redmond found that after completing RTW Levels 1 and 2, many students wanted to continue learning at the college level but hadn’t been successful. 

Redmond said that many of their students need the curriculum broken down and taught at a slower pace with extra assistance that works for each person’s needs and learning style.

“Not everyone may be a candidate for a two or four-year degree, but many students can benefit from earning a certificate of completion in a particular trade,” said Redmond. “Students learn differently – whether auditory, visual, or experiential – and each needs to be reached in their own way to be successful.”

Redmond and her team wanted to create the college experience for their students by tailoring the programs to their needs. They might have different mental, physical, and developmental disabilities ranging from autism to cerebral palsy, but all the students have a desire to learn and work. 

“Everyone needs a reason to get up in the morning and be a contributing member of society,” said Redmond. “These young people don’t want to just watch TV and play video games after high school is over. They need and deserve more.” 

Meeting the Unique Requirements of Special Needs Students

When Redmond met with College of the Canyons about the RTW Academy, she had a good idea of what requirements were needed to create a successful learning environment for special needs students.

The Carousel Ranch team knew from experience that a typical 6-week course might take 15 weeks for students to complete and comprehend. Class sizes would need to be limited to five to six students, so each student could be given individual attention. 

Hands-on work experience would be critical for students to learn by doing instead of trying to conceptualize, which can be a foreign concept to some. Another essential element was having a Ready to Work instructor from Carousel Ranch attend all classes to ensure the students understood the content and to handle any behavioral issues, if needed.

“It took close to two years to put the program together and it was worth the wait,” said John Milburn, Interim Vice President of Workforce and Economic Advancement. 

Millburn worked with a COC faulty member whose expertise was in customer service to develop the program. Then, a Carousel Ranch curriculum advisor, who was also a high school special ed teacher, reviewed the material and worked with COC to slow it down to meet the needs of the students. Once the curriculum was finalized, the COC team searched for the right instructor to teach the class. 

Giving Students Real-World Experience

Jordan was hired by Holiday Inn Express after receiving his Certificate of Completion

Redmond and Milburn knew the employer’s involvement would be crucial to the success of the RTW Academy. They worked together to secure business partners and are thrilled with how the employers have embraced the students. The end goal of the program is job placement, and participation is also a way for employers to recruit new employees. 

These students are excited to work, and they’re full of joy when they arrive here. That’s hard to find these days.

“These students are excited to work, and they’re full of joy when they arrive here. That’s hard to find these days,” said Karina Winkler, General Manager, Holiday Inn Express & Suites Valencia – Santa Clarita. “You never know what someone is capable of until you give them a chance to try.”

The students have unique talents and abilities that employers need and want in employees. Winkler and the other business partners have learned that this population of workers is very detail-oriented, and they don’t get bored when performing repetitive tasks. 

During their customer service training at Holiday Inn Express, the students work with the maintenance engineers, housekeepers, breakfast staff, and front desk employees so they get a real sense of what it’s like to work at a hotel. Starbucks provides the same training to the RTW Academy members as it does to their employees. 

Students in the Warehouse Fulfillment and Logistics pathway learn about the ins and outs of working in a warehouse and take part in packing and fulfilling orders. During one session, the instructor said the goal was to pack 100 masks, and a student named Noland packed twice as many as the others.

When asked how he accomplished that feat, Noland said he wanted to meet the challenge. Milburn noticed how the young man concentrated on the task and wasn’t distracted while working. 

We never want employers to hire our students because it’s the nice thing to do. We want employers to hire our students because they’re excellent employees.

“We never want employers to hire our students because it’s the nice thing to do,” said Redmond. “We want employers to hire our students because they’re excellent employees.”

Holiday Inn Express and Starbucks were so impressed by the students that they each made job offers once the first cohort received their certificates of completion. Three more of the six students were also placed in jobs, which is the goal of the program.

Jordan, a program participant who Holiday Inn Express hired to work the front desk after completing the course, said having a job allowed him to be independent. He liked coming to campus for classes because he felt like he belonged. 

Securing Funds 

Securing funds for the program was critical to making Redmond’s dream a reality. In early 2019, Carousel Ranch received a $60,000 grant to create the RTW Academy at COC and fund the pilot program from Supervisor Kathryn Barger, Los Angeles County 5th District Supervisor. The program’s continuation in 2020 was made possible by another $60,000 grant from Supervisor Barger, which was extended through 2022 due to COVID-19.

Because they’re in the pilot stage, costs are still being incurred and captured. Milburn said that once actual costs are determined, the search will begin for sustainable funding, such as putting the program on the Eligible Training Provider List (ETPL) if it meets requirements. Once the second cohort finishes this summer, more statistics and success stories will be available to share with potential funders. 

Our goal is for Ready to Work Academy to be a replicable model,” said Redmond. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if other colleges created these programs for special needs students? We have the proof to show it works.”