5-Star program teaches vocational skills to special needs students at MacArthur High School in Levittown


At MacArthur High School in Levittown, teachers are working with special-needs students on critical life skills to give them every opportunity to succeed after they leave school.

The 5-Star program, named for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, teaches students with disabilities the skills they will need to function independently. Each star represents a goal of the program: academics, daily living skills, community experience, vocational training, and transition.

“Our goal is to try to give the students the business experience as much as possible,” special education teacher Desiree Mendoza said.

Mendoza remembers when the program was created in 2010, and there were a total of four students. Now, she said, there are 25 students in the program, in four classes. It has been rewarding for her to watch the program grow.

“It’s been nice just to see what we’re doing with the students, and what we’re able to do,” Mendoza said. “We’re constantly trying to reinvent things and come up with new ideas. It’s very rewarding.”

According to Stephanie Addona, the district’s special education chair, younger students in the entry-level class focus on functional academics, such as math and reading, and work on their daily living and pre-vocational skills at a mock apartment at the Levittown Memorial Education Center, located at Abbey Lane. The apartment contains a bed, a closet, a dresser and a kitchen, where students learn to cook, clean, fold clothes and do other everyday activities in a simulated living space.

In the second class, Addona explained, students spend more time in the community. They become familiar with local businesses, and practice going shopping. According to Mendoza, simple tasks at a supermarket, such as navigating aisles, finding products’ expiration dates, and even scoping out an open register can be challenging for students in the program.

“These are things that we take for granted,” she said. “There are things that we don’t even realize that we do that our students struggle with.”

When they move into the working world, students apply the skills they have learned to take on tasks at internships, such as stocking items and cleaning tables. The program partners with businesses in Wantagh and Levittown, including TGI Fridays, Party City, Tropical Smoothie and Frozees, though Addona acknowledged that it can be challenging to find local businesses to take part. Fourteen of the 25 students work in the field each week.

“We really do need a lot of local businesses, and are so grateful for all the local businesses that have worked with us,” she said, “because that’s how many students we are managing out in the community in a week, so it’s a huge component of our program.”

The two highest-level classes are made up of students ages 18 to 22, who spend most of each day in the community, working either with a teacher or with job coaches at local businesses.

Students who are not ready to go out into the community can continue developing their vocational skill in a special lab called the Practical Assessment Exploration System, which provides a simulated hands-on work environment.

According to Addona, teachers in the program spend a great deal of time familiarizing themselves with each student’s individual needs, and personalizing the vocational program. This, she added, is a major reason why the program has been so successful over the years.

“You start by figuring out where the need is for each kid, and it varies,” Mendoza said. “Every single student is different. Their needs are different, so that’s when you differentiate your instruction.”

“They have angels’ wings on their backs,” MacArthur Principal Joseph Sheehan said of the program’s teachers.

And without the collaboration among teachers, assistants, one-to-one aides and support staff, Addona said, the program would not be able to accomplish all that it does for the students.

“We’re a family,” Mendoza said, “and the little things that we celebrate for our students — which might be so minuscule to anybody else — but the little accomplishments our students make are huge accomplishments that we make a big deal about.”