Working while in high school is tough enough for most students, but it can be even harder for students with disabilities. Yet there is a program available to them that can lead to employment after graduation.

Working while in high school is tough enough for most students, but it can be even harder for students with disabilities. Yet there is a program available to them that can lead to employment after graduation.

It's called the work study program, and like other school districts, Hilliard participates. But not every district can boast the success Hilliard has had, with student internships at places like Tuttle Mall and Dublin Methodist Hospital.

"It's incumbent on us to prepare that student for a productive life after school," said Jill Donahue, a pupil services coordinator with the district. By participating in a Work Study Program, "students get employability skills, practice, and they can earn credit toward graduation."

Donahue, who has worked for 5 years in the program, said that some students work in-school, which is how these programs originally started.

"It could be cleaning cafeteria tables after lunch, working in the office sorting mail, delivering messages, working with the custodial," she said.

But that's not the only place the students work, Donahue said.

"Then, we branched out. We decided we wanted to involve the community. The first site was at Tuttle Mall. We started with one store and we've expanded to about 10 of them."

There are also students working as clerks, attendants, assistants, technicians and greeters at Dublin Methodist Hospital.

"The kids are so involved and they're so happy," said Kristen Welch, work study coordinator at Hilliard Darby High School. "The hospital is just ecstatic to have them there, and the jobs that they have are difficult, but they're meaningful and they'll make a difference in their life."

One student is on the way to becoming permanently employed by the hospital, "and the rest of the students will hopefully be employed by an Ohio health center of some kind," Welch said.

Those who have seen program students at work praise their attention to detail, even on repetitive tasks, and the enthusiasm and pride taken in their jobs.

But how does one get into such a program?

The Work Study Program came about through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1975), which ensures that children with disabilities receive a public education. Once a child is identified as having a disability, a team consisting of the child's parents and school staff design an Individualized Education Program for that student.

"Goals are set for you based on your needs," Donahue said of the IEPs. "It's very individualized. It's like taking a student and saying, 'You need this to be successful' and writing it into a plan, and those plans are reviewed every year, and a new plan is written every year."

Welch said students are told about the program as early as 8th grade. Students can request to join the program or are referred by special education teachers or guidance counselors.

"We never push the program on anybody, but it's amazing to me how many of these students without IEPs come to my door asking if they can get involved," Welch said. "My first question is, 'Do you have an IEP?' Otherwise, the floodgates would open."

Donahue estimated 150 students in each of the three Hilliard high schools participate, learning not only the skills to do their jobs, but also making the transition from a school setting to the workplace.

"With the students we work with, you never know what situations are going to come up that require you to stand back from the job coach part of it and sometimes become a counselor (or) just a shoulder to lean on," Welch said.

Working while attending school is important, Donahue said.

"It's a good way to learn a valuable lesson about balance and determining priorities, developing work habits, becoming efficient, juggling a variety of activities at one time, all simulating life's experiences and the positions we find ourselves in," Donahue said.

"They have a lot of fun because it's an elective class, but their life is about getting a job, and it starts in high school," Welch said. "They're willing and ready to go. They're great kids - they're so eager. They just need a little guidance and some training."

Parents like the program as well.

"I'm on the phone with (parents) all the time, making sure their (child's) grades are still OK, and if attendance is an issue," Welch. "They're thankful that there's another person there on a daily basis that's checking in with their son or daughter in a positive manner."

Two upcoming events relating to the work study program will be held next month: A "Transition Night" featuring 72 social and work-oriented agencies, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Dec. 10 at Hilliard Bradley High School; and an "Information Night" for the hospital internship, from 5-6:30 p.m. Dec. 17 at Dublin Methodist.