When you ask a young person what they want to be when they grow up, answers run the gamut from video game creator to professional race car driver. At that age, anything is possible, and children don’t see the roadblocks and realities of what it takes to attain those goals. 

It’s no different for a young person with special needs, as they too want the same things as their peers. They want to live independently, secure a job they love and enjoy the same pride and satisfaction that comes along with those accomplishments. 

Unfortunately, the roadblocks for these students are complex and more difficult to overcome, and the reality is there’s a growing need for communities to provide the right program so these young adults can open the door to college, employment or other goals they want to achieve.

Recently, a new and innovative work development lab, called PAES (Practical, Assessment, Exploration, System) has opened its doors in the Lakeland area, and its mission is to assist young people with special needs, such as those with autism, in not only attaining those goals but reaching for the stars.

Purchased by donation

Purchased by Lakeland STAR School/Academy through donated funds, the new Lakeland STAR PAES Lab is a creation by Jacksonville, Fla., based Talent Assessment, Inc. and is one of eight PAES facilities in Wisconsin and one of 1,820 in place across the United States. The Lakeland STAR PAES Lab is a trailblazer, as it is the first such facility to be placed off-site in a community setting. 

This innovative learning laboratory is housed in the lower level of Ascension’s Howard Young Medical Center in Woodruff and is 2,000 square feet of work and life skills training stations which replicate real-world employment scenarios. 

PAES was first introduced to the Lakeland STAR governance board by lead teacher and director Eric Mikoleit, who got word of a PAES facility in Rhinelander. 

“Rhinelander School District purchased the lab and had an open house,” Mikoleit said. “I was impressed with how it recreated a realistic work environment and used research-based data collection and reporting.” 

After unanimous approval by the STAR board to purchase the lab, discussion began on how to pay for it. It just so happened that the quandary of financing this endeavor occurred at the same time Lakeland STAR hosted a charity golf outing at the Minocqua Country Club. 

“The money to purchase the lab was all donated during a last-minute fundraising idea at the golf outing, and when people saw what PAES was about, they were more than happy to donate,” Mikoleit explained. 

The $28,000 needed to purchase the lab was raised within hours. 

“The generous community members who donated made this exceptional opportunity possible, and we can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done to help these students,” Mikoleit said.

‘A team effort’

Once PAES was purchased, the next hurdle to overcome was where to house it. “The PAES experts told us to house it offsite, as students on the autism spectrum have a hard time generalizing,” Mikoleit stated. “This allows the students to have an authentic experience of going to a job in a work setting such as dressing appropriately and punching in.”

The issue of locating the lab was brought to the attention of the STAR governance board, and board member Sandy Anderson, president of Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital (Tomahawk) and Ascension Eagle River Hospital (Eagle River) offered space at the Howard Young facility. 

“Sandy Anderson was instrumental in offering and securing the space at HYMC that is devoted to the PAES Lab,” Mikoleit explained. “Students can now experience first-hand going to a job and experiencing the ‘world’ of work. PAES is important because it hones in on their strengths and what they like, to foster a bright and independent future. It also helps guide the IEP (Independent Education Program,) so we can plan a path towards college or a career.” 

Mikoleit says Lakeland STAR’s continued partnership with Ascension is instrumental to the success of their students.

With the innovative program on its way to the Lakeland area, it needed someone to facilitate its arrival and set up. After an intensive PAES lab training session during a STAR staff in-service at the end of August, it became clear a dedicated director would be needed to coordinate and organize PAES. Eric Johnson, a paraprofessional at STAR, took on that role.

“It took about a month and a half worth of time and effort to lay the groundwork and get the lab up and running,” Johnson said. “Heidi Johnson from PAES came to the lab and gave suggestions, which I then implemented. There’s a lot that goes into this, so it has been a team effort between Ascension Howard Young and their staff, and Josh Maltbey, Technology Systems coordinator at LUHS, among others.

“The PAES Lab transforms the traditional classroom setting into a simulated work environment where students become ‘employees’ and paraprofessional educators become ‘supervisors’ during the PAES work shifts,” he continued. “PAES helps students begin the process of identifying their own unique interests and abilities. Just like fingerprints, each student has their own unique set of strengths and interests. No two students are exactly alike.”

According to Johnson, the PAES Lab uses valid, data-driven, performance-based transition assessments, as well as formative, authentic and embedded assessments to ascertain the functional levels, career interests and aptitude of participating students across up to 264 different jobs in five employment areas. These areas include business/marketing, computer/technology, construction/industrial, processing/production and consumer/service. 

Not only does the student learn workplace skills while performing PAES jobs, students also learn essential self-sufficiency skills including cooking, cleaning, housekeeping, sewing, money-handling, interpersonal communication and working with tools. Every aspect of the PAES experience is documented with in-depth assessments of data such as employability and functional skills, student strengths, as well as the amount of assistance needed by the student to perform those skills.

“PAES is a great way to kick off a young adult’s transition towards work and self-reliance,” Johnson said. “If students experience PAES prior to going out to their first work experience in the community, they will be better prepared for the job. Students will know what work skills they are good at, and what kind of work they like to do. Because of this, their first job experience will have a much better chance of being a positive one and will gear them up for work success through life.”

Johnson says it’s been very energizing to see the enthusiasm, energy and maturity the students bring to the PAES Lab and digging into their various jobs.

“It’s fun to see their eyes light up with their successes, as well as observe the grit and determination they bring to overcoming their setbacks,” he said.

Personal experience

My visit to Lakeland STAR’s PAES lab was an enlightening one. The facility has only been up and running since about Oct. 22, but students already looked as though they’ve been involved in this program for months. I found it to be multi-faceted, not only preparing students for employment but teaching and reinforcing independent living skills like handling money, cleaning, emailing, time management and food preparation. It also appears to foster executive functioning, fine motor skills and visual and auditory processing. Jobs increase in difficulty and challenge the student to use previously learned skills.

Students walk in the PAES lab door and must punch in as if they are clocking in at a job. They then find their job listing for the day and search the job board for the appropriate station. They go to the station, set up and must get the approval from the supervisor (which are roles played by teachers and paraprofessionals) to go ahead with the task assigned. Students are timed, and when they finish must have their work checked by a supervisor. What goes on behind the scenes is a myriad of research-based assessments and data intake that generates a comprehensive picture of the student’s employability and needs.

Currently, students are brought to the lab from STAR School/Academy, three to five students at a time, in three shifts during sixth through eighth periods of the school day. Johnson says they are looking into adding a fourth morning period which would be for those students who have highest needs and have dedicated one-on-one paraprofessionals. They also hope to adopt a structured Monday through Thursday program.

According to Johnson, plans are in the works to gradually expand the Lakeland STAR PAES Lab into a community resource for area special education programs and schools including HYMC-based Project SEARCH, Lakeland Union High School and the four middle school feeder districts, Minocqua-Hazelhurst-Lake Tomahawk School (MHLT), Arbor Vitae-Woodruff School (AV-W), Lac du Flambeau Public School and North Lakeland.

But what about the students? What do they think of this groundbreaking new program in the Lakeland area? 

Samuel Walker, STAR student and my son, has been to the lab a few times already, and had this to say about the experience, 

“I do a bunch of work at different stations, and we time how fast we can do our job,” he said. “There are food stations, and we do a lot of counting numbers. My favorite is the tool station.” 

Walker believes the lab will help him figure out what schooling or job he wants in the future. Most importantly, he confidently declared, “We do this because autistic people need a career, too.”

Kimberly Drake can be reached at kimberlydrake21@gmail.com.