MARY BETH FALLER, The Arizona Republic
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Many teenagers are pounding the pavement looking for a summer job right now, but Alex Weiner already has one lined up.
Through an innovative program in the Scottsdale Unified School District, Alex, an 18-year-old student who has autism, has accrued experience in carpentry, landscaping and building maintenance — even working with power tools.
“He’s earned that job,” said John Muir, the district’s director of building services, who launched the Team 7 program and hired Alex to work for the district this summer.
Job training before graduation is crucial. People with autism spectrum disorders have an unemployment rate of 90 percent, according to the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center.
Scottsdale’s Team 7 program enlists building-services staff at district schools to help train high-school students in special-education vocational classes. Most of the students have autism.
The district has six grounds-keeping teams. When the building-services staff launched the program last fall, they built a dedicated trailer to haul the tools and equipment for the participating students, which prompted the name Team 7.
The students are divided by interest. Some do landscaping, others work in the print shop binding books, while some are in the school cafeteria.
Team 7 began a year ago, when Alex’s mother, Linda Kraynak, wanted him to have work experience. Muir employed Alex at the district’s building-services center during the summer, where the teen worked a variety of jobs to see what it was like.
Muir said that although people with autism have sensory issues, he didn’t hold back as the boss. Alex had distaste for painting but did it as part of his job.
Because of Alex’s success, Muir launched the program at the start of the school year at Chaparral, Saguaro and Coronado high schools. Next fall, it likely will expand to Arcadia and Desert Mountain, where Weiner will be a second-year senior.
Over the past year, the Team 7 students have maintained the grounds at their schools, built signs, bound books, assembled hand-washing stations, maintained sprinklers, serviced smoke detectors and painted. They spend class time learning about landscaping plants and get training in job-search and interview skills.
Funding for Team 7 comes from revenue the facilities department receives by recycling metal. Lowe’s recently agreed to donate tools.
Team 7 is for the special-needs kids in the middle – those who are not so low-functioning that they must work in a sheltered job site but lack the skills needed to face a competitive job market on their own.
Muir modeled Team 7 after a program started by Janet Holt, special-education director in the Cave Creek Unified School District, that trained special-education students to work in the district’s print shop. In the fall, Muir and Holt are presenting a paper on their programs at an education conference.
The cooperation of the building-services staff at each school is vital for success, Muir said, and that’s where Doreen Muir helps. John and Doreen are parents of two sons on the autism spectrum, and she is a district teacher who does training on autism awareness. She held sessions for the staff to help dispel concerns about working with people who have autism.
“The biggest misconception is that people on the (autism) spectrum are not social. They are social, but they lack the social skills to be successful,” she said.
The building-services staff has been enthusiastic to be part of hands-on education, even creating adaptive technology for the students, said Joe Arteca, senior facilities coordinator at Saguaro.
At first, his staff was a little nervous, having witnessed behavioral issues among some of the students.
“But we put everyone’s mind at rest,” said Arteca, who is excited for the program to expand next year. “I’ll be training my replacement.”
John Muir hired three of the Team 7 participants for the 13 summer jobs he has in his department.
Kraynak, Alex’s mom, said the change in her son was amazing, and her husband choked up while watching a video of their son using a drill.
“He’s a kid who usually needs assistance, and here he was on his own,” she said. “It’s not like he talks to us about what he wants to do, so this really gives us hope that he can be productively involved.”