Students gather for Work Skills Competition

Published 8:23 am Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Special needs students from 11 school districts gathered Tuesday for the second annual Work Skills Competition, held at St. Olaf Church.

The event is sponsored by Austin and Albert Lea public schools, with support from other school districts within Region 10.

The day included 75 students listening to a keynote speaker, as well as the skills competition, which included filling out a job application, participating in a mock interview, and general work knowledge.

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Also on hand were representatives from service agencies, such as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Motor Vehicles, who provided information on services for those with special needs; as well as prospective employers, such as Hormel Foods Corp.

“It gives our students real-world experience with interviewing with employers, and understanding what their expectations are,” said Erin Gustafson, the work-based learning coordinator for Albert Lea Public Schools. “They also can receive feedback from employers here today, which they can find useful when applying for a job.”

Her Austin counterpart, Sara Gilberg, agreed, adding “it is really difficult for smaller districts” to provide this type of gathering, “so we joined forces; I think, overall, it has turned this into a pretty good experience for our students.” Students came from Winona, Lanesboro, Rushford, the Minnesota School for the Deaf in Fairbault, and the Southern Minnesota Education Consortium, a collection of smaller schools who banded together to provide services for their students.

Visiting students answer general knowledge questions during the Work Skills Competition Tuesday at St. Olaf Lutheran Church. Eric Johnson/

There were 10 attending from Austin and 14 from Albert Lea; all were either receiving special needs services at their high schools, or through their districts’ transition programs, which provide services that help 19- and 20-year-olds move into an occupation.

Many of the students already volunteer or work in the community, accompanied by a paraprofessional trained in work experience education.

Patti Darbo, work-based learning coordinator for Winona Public Schools, said her school has already scheduled a similar get-together, but attended Tuesday’s event in a show of support for Austin and Albert Lea.

A by-product of the events is that professionals get to network and share ideas, too, Darbo said.

“And, it allows our students to try things that are really hard to teach in the classroom,” she said. “We learn from them [Austin]; they learn from us.”

Gilberg said students attending represented a broad range of needs, including students on the autism spectrum, those who have hearing problems, learning disabilities, or developmental or physical disabilities.

“This type of gathering enhances the education of our students; it enhances the experience and gives them a chance to speak with employers, share ideas with other students and gain confidence their in own abilities,” Gilberg said.