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Centennial special education students get a look at LIFE @ Siemens

Alpharetta company will "lose" some workers next week when Spring Break rolls around.

Next week, when the Fulton County School System goes on its Spring Break, things could look a little different at Siemens Industry Inc. in Alpharetta.

Office mail might go undelivered. Food in the company cafeteria might not be set out as quickly. The recycling bins might go unsorted, and floors and walls might not be as spotless as usual.

Of course, companies as large as Siemens have full-time employees for these responsibilities, but none are cheerful or beloved as the five Centennial High School students who work there as part of the LIFE @ Siemens program. Short for “Learning Internship For Employment,” the program is a unique partnership between Fulton County Schools and Siemens to provide special education students with real-life work skills that can translate to jobs after high school.

Since it is a curriculum-based work program, the Centennial students interning at Siemens follow the same calendar as the rest of Fulton County Schools, meaning that when spring break comes, they too will take time off.

“The students will be missed during the break. They’re a part of our family and relationships are formed,” says Jim Eason, Siemen’s director of Facilities Operations and Planning. Eason works closely with the students and with their teacher, Catherine Wise, and paraprofessional Carol Fitzgerald. Serving as “job coaches,” Wise and Fitzgerald help supervise students as they work in the cafeteria, in environmental services or in the mailroom.

Technically called “Community Based Instruction,” or CBI, the LIFE @ Siemens program places students in an environment where job skills are performed, similar to an internship. But different from other CBI programs, the students and even their teachers are completely housed at Siemens, making the program cost-neutral for the school system to operate. They meet in office space on the second floor and students report to and from the “classroom area” throughout the day, checking in on their schedule, asking about their next assignment, or just like other employees, sometimes taking a snack break.

Community based instruction supports the school system by broadening the educational services offered for students with disabilities. It also provides a service to local businesses and organizations as they are able to help students learn job and employability skills, which ultimately benefits the community and workforce.

“CBI helps fill the void because, nationally, about 20% of special education students are not going on to technical schools or qualifying for federal jobs programs [for individuals with disabilities],” said Julie Butler, the school system’s coordinator of Transitions Services. “Programs like LIFE @ Siemens help students acquire marketable skills, learn the importance of teamwork and a good work ethic, and how to take direction from others, yet work independently."

Students also learn the importance of proper work attire, time management, reliable transportation, and even appropriate cell phone use on the job.“When you put students in a corporate environment, they quickly adapt and emulate what they see,” said Wise. “They learn a respect for the workforce that can’t be learned in a classroom environment inside a school.”

Although there are LIFE @ Siemens programs in Forsyth and Gwinnett counties, where other Siemens facilities exist, the program is the only one of its kind in Fulton due to its sole Alpharetta location. Other companies are being sought throughout Fulton so that similar LIFE programs can be expanded to other high schools and in more geographical areas. Next year, Wise’s class will grow from five students to seven as others are eager to begin the experience, and all of the current Centennial interns plan to return in the fall.

But for now, the Centennial students look forward to Spring Break, their first extended “vacation” away from Siemens since the program launched in January.

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