Goodwill Works: Helping Students Earn an Occupational Diploma

In the state of Tennessee, there is a new diploma for high school students called the Occupational Diploma. This new program focuses on vocational and career outcomes, and helps students with disabilities gain and document their skills so they can pursue community employment after graduation.

 Congratulations to these students that graduated from TSD this year. Left to right: Jamal Vaughn, Trenton Hindsley, Lauren Witzler, John Harper, and Javier Licea-Sanchez.

Congratulations to these students that graduated from TSD this year. Left to right: Jamal Vaughn, Trenton Hindsley, Lauren Witzler, John Harper, and Javier Licea-Sanchez.

Goodwill Industries-Knoxville and Tennessee School for the Deaf Transition Services Department have formed a partnership to help students gain the skills they need to earn this diploma while participating in Work Based Learning. Through updated tracking methods and support systems, we were able to help three students receive their Occupational Diploma this year.

Our Goodwill’s Employment, Training and Rehabilitation Coordinator, Lauren Witzler has been the driving force on this project for Goodwill.

“I started working at Goodwill as the School-to-Work Program Manager, and so when the students came back to school in August, it was my job to monitor their progress as they came to our facility to work on soft skills: showing up on time, following instructions, getting along with others, things like that,” Lauren shared. “They have spent time at our Pleasant Ridge and Kingston Pike facilities working on different skills, and throughout the school year we tracked their progress.”

It has been amazing just to see the progress that was made over the past year with students who already have a communication barrier... to watch them become more comfortable communicating with their hearing coworkers... That maybe would not have happened without the training and support that we put in place to help them learn.
— Lauren Witzler, Goodwill's Employment, Training and Rehabilitation Coordinator

To prove that students are ready for the Occupational Diploma, Goodwill and Tennessee School for the Deaf staff began using a Skills, Knowledge, Experience and Mastery Assessment, also known as a SKEMA. “[It records] the different skills that the student has worked on and mastered over the course of their time at the Tennessee School for the Deaf in Work Based Learning,” said Lauren. ”When the student graduates, they have a resume or portfolio created of the different skills that they have. It shows that they are employable, so once they leave school they are ready for employment in the community.”

Having this proof can be very helpful for students. Lauren stated, “It is important to the students that graduate because it documents their ability to work; it documents that they have those soft skills, and other specific skills necessary to be employed in the community. It goes a little bit further than a basic special education diploma.”

The three students that graduated from TSD with their Occupational Diploma this year have bright futures ahead of them, and will have support even after leaving this program. “I am really looking forward to what they have in store for them when they go back to their hometowns,” said Lauren. “Two of them are from Middle Tennessee and another is from West Tennessee. I was able to reach out to other entities of Goodwill in Middle Tennessee to ask questions about what resources they had available in the students’ hometowns; that way, when the students finished their work-based learning programs here and graduated from TSD, I had already facilitated some contact with possible people that could provide services for them.

This program has been powerful for everyone involved. “I really love this program. I think that when I started in August, I didn’t have any idea what I was getting myself into and how it was going to impact these students’ lives,” Lauren enthused. “It has been amazing just to see the progress that was made over the past year with students who already have a communication barrier because they are hard of hearing or completely deaf, to watch them become more comfortable communicating with their hearing coworkers, and to see team work going on out there on the work floor that maybe would not have happened without the training and support that we put in place to help them learn what it is like to have a job with hearing coworkers.”

We wish luck to all the students that graduated from Tennessee School for the Deaf with their Occupational Diploma this year. If you would like to learn more about our programs, click here.