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Lynbrook's Career Development Program soars

New Owl’s Nest store to offer more opportunities

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The Lynbrook Public Schools Career Development Program for special-education students is making strides eight years after its formation. It continues to expand and innovate, and the new extension under construction at Lynbrook High School will help it grow, according to  district officials.

The program focuses on vocational training and life skills, such as using a cash register and reading emails, while incorporating traditional academic components like reading and math. High school students with educational and mental disabilities are divided into two cohorts based on their ages, both of which spend time outside school, working at local businesses.

Katy McHale, 16, and Gregory Deratus, 15, are guided by Annie McKenna, who has taught special education in the district for 10 years and has been the program’s teacher for four. Students have a double-period block of vocational training each day,  two days of the week are devoted to their job sites, and they spend Wednesdays at the district administrative building and Fridays organizing books in the school library. Once a week, they take part in travel training, learning to read pedestrian signs, follow maps, spot speed limit signs and find their way around the school.

“I like to cook, play Ping-Pong and play board games,” McHale said, noting that next year she hopes to work at Doughology in the village. Debra Geiser has been a one-to-one aide in Lynbrook for 19 years, and she now assists McHale with her daily school activities.

Coralie Germain, 17, and Justin Martinez, 21, are taught by Eileen Silecchia, and they explore career field work environment preferences every day. Germain works in the administrative office, the Lynbrook Public Library and the school cafeteria, where, she said, she enjoys preparing food with the kitchen staff. Martinez works at Miller’s Hardware and Doughology, where he said he loves to make doughnuts for customers.

Many CDP students also participate in extracurricular activities. LHS’s Challenger basketball team competes against rival districts and learns through drills, such as dribbling and shooting, all while cheering on their teammates.

“My nickname was J-Mart, and that’s what they announced when I scored baskets,” Martinez said. “I had a lot of fun playing basketball.” Students also enjoy the annual Corner of the Sky Production, for which they act and dance in a play run by CDP teachers, aides and buddies. Martinez used to operate the stage lights for the production.

CDP students continue to attend school every day in person, but certain activities have been canceled because of the pandemic. In a typical year, they rode on buses and trains to learn public transportation etiquette, but those activities have been put on hold because of the pandemic, along with Challenger basketball and Corner of the Sky Production.

For sophomore Alexandra Spector, this marks her first year as a buddy, but she is already a part of the CDP family. She connected with the program through LHS Principal Joseph Rainis, who, earlier this year, sought volunteers from the Student Government Association.

“My favorite part of being a CDP buddy is being able to interact with the students and become their friend,” Spector said. “We eat lunch together, play board games and just talk about our day. I love hearing their experiences, and it is an hour that I really look forward to throughout the day.”

Junior Vincent Sullivan, McHale’s buddy, has been involved with the program for more than two years, originally helping to coach the Challenger squad.

“The thing that I love the most is that spending time with the CDP kids makes my day better no matter what,” Sullivan said. “I love being able to spend time with them, and we always have a good time.”

Additionally, CDP students often attend the Virtual Enterprise class, an interactive business course taught by Dr. Benedict Tieniber, to further strengthen their skills in customer service and money handling. VE students are also aiding CDP students to develop a business model for their developing school store, which will open next school year when construction of the building’s new wing is complete. The building’s new developments will also include a refurbished CDP suite, equipped with a kitchen for students to practice cooking.

The Owl’s Nest store will sell drinks, snacks and specialized LHS products, such as VE, Key Club and Student Government Association merchandise, and it will be run by CDP students, who will work as cashiers and customer greeters.

“The Career Development Program is absolutely phenomenal,” Tieniber said. “I’ve watched it grow over my past four years here, and to have a school store, with CDP students running it, is really incredible.” Art teacher Michael Cunz is running a contest for his art students to draw an Owl’s Nest logo; the winning art will be painted on the storefront.

The increased use of video chatting during the pandemic has also provided opportunity for innovation. Each Friday, CDP students from the high school have a call via Cisco Webex with their pen pals from North Middle School. This is the CDP’s first year at North, and it is led by Bryton Saunders, who previously taught special education in the Bronx.

“The best part of my job is seeing my students grow,” Saunders said. “It’s incredible to compare where they started in September to where they are now.” Saunders added that the CDP students and staff have formed strong bonds during the school year. “We call ourselves the ‘Room 126 family,’ because that’s really what we are,” she said. “I absolutely love this program.”

Saunders said she has high hopes for the program’s future, and plans to bring her students to LHS once or twice a week to take advantage of its new facilities. She explained that her North students have been creating miniature stores in the middle school classroom, so working in the Owl’s Nest will be an opportunity for their skills to develop.

“The collaboration between students in and out of the Career Development Program is what makes this building so special,” LHS Assistant Principal Matthew Sarosy said. “The school store will be awesome, and having the CDP students so involved in its operation is something I’m really looking forward to.”