Helping to make its students’ dreams a reality has been one of the over-arching goals of Cincinnati’s St. Rita School for the Deaf since its founding in 1915.

Through the years, it has done just that—by educating students and children who need special methods of communication in a safe environment. Its classrooms offer small sizes for individualized instruction, a communication team that includes speech and language therapists and an audiologist, plus technology including SmartBoards, iPads and laptops. Beyond the classroom, the school offers after-school activities such as woodworking, sewing, choir and chess, as well as sports and other opportunities for its students.

Then, in the fall of 2014, St. Rita’s took another great leap forward in that cause, establishing the school’s Career Plus Program. An intensive, two-year program designed for students who are continuing their special-education services so as to become “career ready,” Career Plus focuses on job-skill development, budgeting expertise, self-advocacy and understanding legal rights for people with disabilities.

What’s important to keep in mind is that the program’s emphasis is on career opportunities, not simply getting a job, says Natalie Marsh, who oversees Career Plus.

“Our program focuses on employability and independent living. The goal is to get students into not just a job but a career—where you really, really love what you do,” stresses Marsh. “Their career might be in restaurant work, landscaping or carpentry, etc.—we try to distinguish between what they love to do and a job that will just be paying their bills.”

Another aspect to the program is teaching students about their rights at work as a person with a disability.

“For instance, when should a meeting have an interpreter present?” says Marsh. “This type of concern has to be taught—so how do you go about educating the students as well as the company in a non-hostile way?”

Beginnings and Changes

The Career Plus Program wasn’t something that was necessarily on St. Rita’s agenda. In fact, it came about quite serendipitously.

In the fall of 2014, recalls Marsh, a St. Rita student had earned enough credits for graduation and intended to then enter his own school district’s transition program. The only opportunity he was presented with, however, was at a local correctional facility—which was not a job that interested him, neither for the short-term nor long-term.

“We didn’t want him just sitting at home following graduation,” says Marsh. The solution: the creation of the Career Plus program.

Career Plus, as noted earlier, typically lasts two years.

The first year primarily takes place on campus. Students are provided with information on what to expect with their first job, learning how to complete a job application, practicing interviewing techniques, how to interact at work, personal budgeting and much more.

The second year is off campus, and entails placement with a local business. “We look at the child’s strengths and interests, and we see where we can get them placement,” says Marsh.

Add this new twist to the program since its start-up: It has now opened its doors to students at other schools.

“A school district had placed a deaf and hard-of-hearing student with us in the K-12 programing and had continued on with Career Plus. When they saw how successful the student was performing in Career Plus, they wanted to send us another student—one who had not previously attended St. Rita—specifically for our transition program,” says Marsh.

“The student’s school district had a limited transition program that could not individualize to the student’s needs as well as our Career Plus program. So the parents asked St. Rita educators if their child could participate in Career Plus, and they were given the go-ahead,” she continues.

The Business Connection

To date, the Career Plus program has partnered with a range of Cincinnati-area companies, including:

- Bonnie Lynn Bakery

- Expressions By Elizabeth

- Gorman Heritage Farm

- Group Sales, Inc.

- Iacono Company

- Lakeview Garden Center & Landscaping

- LaRosa’s Pizzeria

- Vonderhaar’s Catering

And the roster of participating companies will continue to change as students’ needs change, says Marsh. “Our partnerships with businesses change depending upon our students. Of course, we would love it if businesses contacted us to work with us for this program.”

For instance, says Marsh, “we have a student in the program who would really love to pursue office cleaning. She’s trying out clerical work for now and she’s okay with it, but it’s not her favorite.”

Importantly, it’s not only the students who benefit—the participating companies in the program benefit, too.

“The Career Plus program is a win-win opportunity for any corporation. Over the last three years, it has provided our company and team members with the unique opportunity to engage with students who are deaf or have communication needs. It makes our team stronger and better leaders,” notes Chris Schlichter of Group Sales, Inc. “Additionally, it’s rewarding to know that we’re helping these young adults to develop the real-world skills and experience they need to begin their careers.”

Iacono Company’s Doug Craven echoes those comments. “Partnering with St. Rita’s on the Career Plus program has been a wonderful experience for all of our staff members. Having the opportunity to enrich the lives of these students by instructing them in the ways of our craft has been an awesome and humbling experience. I think that this journey has taught us more about life than anyone ever anticipated,” he says.

Something Special

As of October 2018, seven students have participated in the Career Plus program. Four have graduated, and all of these have gained employment prior to leaving the program; another three students are still participating in the program.

“The thing about our students is that they’re not your typical teenagers—they really want to work,” she continues. “The program helps build up their skills.”

“We have something special, pretty unique,” says Marsh.

Sign Language Classes

Another way that St. Rita School for the Deaf contributes to the community is by offering American Sign Language (ASL) classes—providing the tools you need to converse with employees, friends and others who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Six levels of classes are offered (three beginner and three intermediate), with classes held over a nine-week period. Also available to those who have taken Beginner 1 Sign: an optional lab, which provides an interactive signing environment, small group activities, games and drills with members from the Deaf Community working as activity and lab leaders.

Fees for the classes range from $80 for the classes (all levels) and $80 for the lab.

For a current class schedule and to enroll, download the class-registration form on the St. Rita website (srsdeaf.org).


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