By Steve Sears
William Paterson University’s School of Continuing and Professional Education since 2019 has offered an Academic Transition Program, through which students ages 18 – 21 with moderate learning disabilities in local school districts can forge career paths and embrace life transition opportunities.
Per Iris DiMaio, an Associate Director in the School of Continuing and Professional Education, it took two years to plan and materialize the program. The initial school to hop on board was Benway School in Wayne, a private school for students with learning disabilities, and the Wayne school district itself. Initially, only 5 students took part in the young program. The 5-day program featured campus classes at WPU four days a week, and the fifth day they stayed at their own school. “Our first class was in the fall of 2019,” DiMaio says.
The program includes academic life skills and readiness, which includes what its like to be on campus, career paths to explore and various fields and training involved. Also included are goal setting skills, motivation, time management, and study skills.
When the program first started, WPU students served as mentors for those in the program, and university employees took part in one-day-a-week job shadowing. Due to COVID-19, the latter has been eliminated for the time being, while the former is now virtual. “I have been blessed,” says DiMaio, “that the district has trusted us with the virtual instruction. It was new for me; it was new for everyone. I put together a class, Vocational Career & Professional Trades Certificate Workshop, and that one has given them an exposure of particular fields,” says DiMaio. Included are Culinary/Baking for Hospitality Services, Business, as well as Child Development, Construction Basics (All Trades), and Entrepreneurship, and Pathways to Health-Care Careers (Medical Transportation and Dietary Aide.) Programs are held Monday – Friday.
“We want,” says DiMaio, “to help them develop an action plan as to what is there next step.”
Frank Asciutto, a COBOL computer programmer, is technology professor in the Academic Transition Program. He has been teaching Microsoft Office and Adobe at WPU since the early 2000s. On a recent Workplace Design and Productivity Thursday, he is teaching Google Docs and Microsoft Office via ZOOM. Some students are taking part from home, and some from Benway School. “We’re doing Google slides,” he says. “I gave them a mild presentation to work on as a team.” He doesn’t like to call it homework, so he coins it a challenge instead.
Jomely Then is a WPU student mentor watching along on ZOOM, helping Asciutto support the class, which has 11 members. “When Frank is teaching, it’s hard for him to view what everyone else is doing. It’s more like paying attention to what’s going on, seeing if they (the students) need extra help.”
Team One presented Fashion Trends of 2020, and Team Two highlighted Movies, TV Shows, and Favorite Characters. As they presented their slides, Asciutto offered helpful hints, but allowed the students to explain their creations in detail.
“The project we’re working on right now has two teams, and we have to do a PowerPoint presentation of what we’re doing, which is slides,” says Samantha Ramirez, who loves the class. “I love this class because I really like using Google slides and Google docs.” She also takes culinary and writing classes.
Frank Arias, 20, is an opposing team member. “I’ve studied all about technologies. I’ve learned about how technology works, how to do slides, and also learned about how to cook.” He and Ramirez both made pizzas at home in the Culinary/Baking for Hospitality Services course. “My ultimate goal is to be a cook.”
Asciutto states communication and being able to work effectively with others is of prime importance. Teams One and Two have shown they can. “Teamwork and collaboration are a big part of how we work today, especially remotely,” he says.
DiMaio expresses her ultimate Academic Transition Program goal. “I would like to be able to have a class for every trade.”
For more information about the program, contact Iris DiMaio, School of Continuing and Professional Education, at 973-720-2491 or 973-390-0340, or email DiMaioI@wpunj.edu.