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Rebecca Cousins has worked at West Springfield High School as the school’s employment and transition representative for six years. In this role, Cousins helps special education students prepare for the transition from high school to life after. She assists them with career and college exploration and helps them delve into options for their next step in life after high school. 

The special education students usually have work placements each year where they work on their skills through experience, but COVID threw a wrench in those plans. “Sometimes students have trouble getting work skills, so being out in the community helps them learn these skills,” said Cousins. “When we came back to school in February the students were not out in the community and we had several class periods that needed to be filled, and I wanted to find something outdoors and meaningful for them to do.”

In the past, students have worked on their skills doing things in the school such as making ice packets for the nurse, working in the library or organizing food pantries. They also have had partnerships with local businesses such as the Springfield Hilton, Hidden Pond Nature Center, Malek’s Pizza, Austin Grill, Safeway, IHOP and Abiding Presence and Prince of Peace Lutheran churches, but COVID put a hold on these opportunities. 

With the normal opportunities for the Work Awareness and Transition program unavailable, Cousins had to think outside of the box. “West Springfield recently underwent a five-year renovation, and now our classrooms lead out to a large courtyard, and it needed work,” said Cousins. “Back when I was student teaching the special education students did landscaping work, and my brother who has Down syndrome has been working for a landscaping company for years. Everyone was on board with the idea of working on the courtyard. We had support from administration, teachers, instructional assistants, everybody helped. Teachers were even buying mulch from the football team booster sale.”

While working out in the garden to beautify it, there were a variety of tasks to complete to suit all abilities. “There was a lot of weeding, figuring out what was a weed and what was not. We also created two four by four garden beds, students planted seeds, created a barrier, laid mulch, created a fairy garden and we even bought a shed from Home Depot that needed to be assembled,” said Cousins. “There were also tasks like picking up sticks, hauling the wheelbarrow and writing thank you notes for anyone who donated to the cause.”

The courtyard at West Springfield High is a large, enclosed area, allowing about 20 students at a time to all be actively working and engaged. One teacher even donated a hammock to the courtyard so students could take some time to relax while outside. “It was amazing seeing them working so hard,” said Cousins. “They were so excited to be out there. At the end of the year, we write transition plans for the students, and a lot of them now said they want to go into landscaping.”

The project was made possible thanks to a grant from the Foundation for Fairfax County Public Schools, money allotted through a work-based learning grant and donations from staff, parents, families and friends. 

While the courtyard looks much better, the work is not over for students. “The courtyard is still not completed. We started in March and worked through June on it,” said Cousins. “We will pick it back up in the fall, I have a lot of ideas. It is so rewarding actually doing the work, the students knew they were working hard to make the garden better for the school.”

Cousins enjoys working in the garden with students but is also hopeful that they will be able to get back out into the community for their Work Awareness and Transition program placements for the upcoming year. “Students with disabilities when given the opportunity can really make a difference. We are hoping some of our community business partners come back, we have missed them,” said Cousins. “If any other businesses are open and want to offer the opportunity for work experiences, please contact us. We are always looking for work placements, even if they are not in the West Springfield boundary, it can be set up with other schools.”

To learn more or contact the FCPS Work Awareness and Transition programvisit https://bit.ly/3x4ckTh

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