WBL Industries brings high school special education students into workforce

Special-education students are gaining work experience because of a new Leander ISD business.

Work Based Learning Industries is the first program of its kind in Leander ISD. The Cedar Park High School business employs special education students on campus and aims to prepare them for real-world careers while filling a need for local and international companies.

Prepared and coached by LISD staff, WBL Industries and its student employees are subcontracted by outside manufacturing businesses, earning money to assemble products. Since its inception two-and-a-half years ago, WBL Industries has generated approximately $6,000, but Denise Geiger, LISD transition coordinator for special education, said the students' work is not necessarily about making money.

"In special education in the past, people looked at all the things that were troubling with a student and asked, 'How can we fix this poor person?'" she said. "What we're doing now is asking, 'How can we help build on skills and abilities to have them give back to the community?'"

Serving the students

LISD serves special education students with a wide range of disabilities. Through committee review, parents and staff determine whether a student might encounter difficulties transitioning into the workforce after high school. While other students learn through classroom lectures and textbook assignments, Geiger said her students could have lifelong employability issues without intervention.

"We ultimately want lives that are meaningful and sustainable," she said. "We don't want students to go out there and just go sit on their couch when they leave here."

Gail Giovanetti, LISD vocational adjustment coordinator, said students gain lifelong professional experience, self-esteem, communication and problem-solving skills through their work at WBL Industries.

"We want students to internalize what a good job they are doing and to have good work ethics," Giovanetti said. "To know you are doing a job not just for the money, but because you feel proud of what you've done, that's what we try to teach them intrinsically."

Employment as education

Special education work programs in LISD are not new. Some students practice basic tasks at job sites including H-E-B, the Cedar Park Regional Medical Center and Half Price Books. In the classroom, they learn how to sustain work for an extended period of time while getting along with others.

"Taking them out into the business climate gives them a feel for actually working with employers and customers and how to deal with all kinds of consumer issues that we talk about but that you really can't duplicate in the classroom," LISD Employment Specialist Rob Wheeler said.

But the dozen or so students who work for WBL Industries contribute to a larger economic market while preparing for a real-world career. As subcontracted employees, WBL Industries students have assembled products for businesses including Siemens AG, M/D Totco Instrumentations and Yes Printing. Unlike some special education job training, manufacturing companies can pay students for their work without offering an hourly wage and benefits.

Wheeler said student Coni Moya is one of the best examples of how well WBL Industries works at Cedar Park High School. Though she completed the program last year, Moya helped show executives from Siemens AG the effect their business had on WBL Industries.

"Before, all she had been able to do was put dirt in a baggy for the science center for elementary schools," he said. "In doing this, she became a part of a Fortune 100 international corporation. Moya is responsible for putting together terminal blocks that could now be operating traffic signals in Tokyo."

Building the future

Community partnerships are vital to the success of WBL Industries, Wheeler said. He has visited with community leaders and the Cedar Park Chamber of Commerce in an attempt to attract more business for students.

The company's profits go into an activity fund, which can only be used for needs associated exclusively with WBL Industries, but program leaders plan to apply for permission from the Department of Labor so students can get paychecks in the future.

WBL Industries has already involved other school organizations in their business, including the yearbook team, which designed the pamphlet given to outside companies. Eventually, Giovanetti said she would like the whole school to team up to work on marketing, accounting and other aspects of WBL Industries.

"What we want to do is run it like a business. We want students to work and be self-sufficient," Giovanetti said. "Everything is realistic. This is real life."