VA Palo Alto Collaborates with School District - VA Palo Alto Health Care System
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VA Palo Alto Health Care System

 

VA Palo Alto Collaborates with School District

Group of students and coaches of the Secondary Options program

Secondary Options is a program at VAPAHCS that helps students with special needs to gain work experience.

By Michael Hill-Jackson
Wednesday, April 26, 2017

For more than 20 years, VA Palo Alto Health Care System has collaborated with the Palo Alto Unified School District on a program that helps students with special needs to gain work experience. The program is unique in that it focuses on students still in high school, where the support net is much wider and conducive to helping the students reach success.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that the program, known as Secondary Options, came to a halt to find a more modern solution that better challenged the students.

“I wanted to change the stereotype that kids with disabilities can only do certain jobs,” said Program Coordinator Dave Hoshiwara, who noticed the students were typically going into housekeeping or food service jobs. He has been running the program since around the time it started, which unlike many other programs, is focused on students still in high school.

Enter Arshdeep Shinh, a seasoned educator, contracted in early 2013 as an education specialist to help refresh the program. Given only one student, she was determined to succeed as she worked with the Voluntary Service office at the Palo Alto Division to network with supervisors in various areas of the hospital. She even went so far as to volunteer herself to gain the experience her students would endure.

With the success of the first student and Hoshiwara’s advocacy to the school district, the program was given the green light to expand. The program eventually grew to 13 students over the summer.

“Now we have many students who are doing just as well as the first student. One student has even gone on to be hired by Facebook,” said Shinh, who was able to place students in positions under IT, clinical services, and even research labs. 

Susan Tapella, a transition specialist that brings more than 20 years of experience from various positions in education, works with students in the program to develop their social skills for the work environment. Each summer she teaches a four-week course focused on topics such as how to approach people in certain situations and help them gain the confidence to do their job.

“The time and compassion given by VA staff helps. Our students are treated like everyone else and the experience gained here really is a selling point for their resumes,” said Tapella.

To support the growing program that now brings in about 30 students each year, the district hired additional job coaches to help with managing the students. 

Brought on in early 2016, the job coaches became a key reinforcement to keep the students focused on their assignments and on schedule. One of the coaches is Palo Alto native Amber Sandoval, who had been working for the city of Palo Alto for nine years before making the transition into the school district.

“Our goal is to grow their independence but we are always here to support them,” said Sandoval, discussing how coaches play a role in the program.

Esteban Aguaristi is another coach who is focused on time management and students without transportation. His Dodge Challenger is a favorite among the students who brag to their fellow students about getting to ride in it.

“I feel like it adds another motivating factor for them to succeed,” said Aguaristi, who is now known among the students for having the “cool car.”

The positive attitudes of the coaches are evident as the third job coach, Nick Sopko, says, “I love to see the students improve. If they aren’t improving, we aren’t doing our job.”

There is a comradery seen in the coaches and the other administrators that translates to a great relationship with the students, adding to the success of the program.

When asking all of the coaches about the best success stories, one of the students mentioned by all was Anthony McFadden, a 19-year old recent graduate who was hired after completing the program to work in the Patriot Cafe at the VA Palo Alto campus.

“I love it,” he said about the position but when asked about his plan for the future, he said, “I want to become a mechanic.”

Another student mentioned is Alan Lopez, 17, who now tracks the weight of Veterans for the Home Telehealth program. He has been so successful that he also took a leadership role in helping to train another student.

Lopez has also worked with the Office of Research and Development. When asked about his plans for the future, he said, “I want to go to San Jose State and become a software engineer.”

The last student mentioned, Megan Le, works in the Office of Research and Development. Her mother was astonished at the progress she made after being placed into her position.

“After one year at the VA, we saw so much opportunity for her. She now has a diploma and is taking public transportation by herself to her job. She is a great testament to the program and everyone involved,” said Megan’s mother, Anne Le.

Megan was initially coming to work with her mother, who works across the street, but now she is independent enough to handle her day alone.

Shinh presented this successful model at national conferences which was well accepted. With the opportunity to work with such a great team at the school district and a welcoming environment at VA, future students now have a stepping-stone to a world of opportunities.

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