SouthTech Academy helps students with learning disabilities find path to employment

SouthTech Academy in Boynton Beach has continued to create opportunities for students with learning disabilities to excel through its transition program as they earn certifications and a path toward employment.

The SouthTech Academy transition program, which originated in 2001, is open to students from ages 18 to 22. The eligible students have an Individualized Education Program and deferred receipt of their diploma.

SouthTech Academy works with several students who have been diagnosed with speech and language disabilities. They assist students with learning disabilities who recently graduated from high school with their development toward technical and vocational training, postsecondary education, employment and independent living. They also help students with financial literacy, obtaining their learner’s permit and attending college.

The SouthTech Academy transition program had about 20 students with just two instructors during its infancy. After providing services to 40 students two years ago, they currently support 82 students with learning disabilities on campus and in the community.

SouthTech Academy transition program student Giselle practices her skills in cosmetology with transition specialist coordinator Robert Pancione and cosmetology program coordinator Patrice Marsh. (Alex Kushel/Contributor)

Robert Pancione, who has been at SouthTech Academy since 2007, is in his second year as the transition specialist coordinator. He is joined by additional transition specialists who visit high schools in Palm Beach County to present the program to ESE students. The students complete an online application and are selected for interviews after January each year. The school features 11 academies and the students are provided three choices based on openings.

“The school has a very good reputation,” Pancione said. “We have so many high school students who have heard about our program and are interested. The ultimate goal is for them to come to the school and get as many certifications as they can and help them get a job in the community in that field. We support the students in the classroom and check on them each week. We work on goals for each of our students and help them get better. We have individuals who go at their own pace and we do not put pressure on them. We help the students become independent and work with them in the community.”

The majority of students attend for three hours each day during the week. The transition program students have the opportunity to develop skills in several academies, including auto collision body repair, automotive service technology, culinary arts, and cosmetology. Pancione said they support the students by monitoring their progress, providing tutoring assistance and working with students on any challenges and developing their organizational skills. They also help students with obtaining certifications for employment and preparation and guidance with resumes, job applications and mock interviews.

“It’s rewarding and the best feeling when the students get the job,” Pancione said. “They come out of high school and just want to work and some have applied in the past and have not been able to get anything. When they actually attain their goal in a few years with our assistance, it’s really rewarding and very cool.”

SouthTech Academy has several transition program students working in a variety of jobs, including at auto dealerships, restaurants and culinary positions. The medical sciences academy has produced students who have enjoyed success as certified nursing assistants.

“We have so many success stories of students who have gained certifications to work in the community or have used our program as a stepping stone to get the experience and hands-on skills needed to help them prepare for college,” Pancione said.

For the first time this school year, a student in the transition program has been provided an American Sign Language interpreter. The funding for the ASL interpreter is entirely covered by SouthTech Academy. Giselle, who graduated from Spanish River High School, joined the cosmetology academy this past August.

“We are here to help and the priority is our students,” said Carla Lovett, SouthTech Academy executive director. “We never had a student that needed an interpreter. I am so pleased we were able to make it happen for her. She really showed a passion to want to be in the program and she has done really well.”

Giselle attends three hours each day during the week. She aced her first exam with a perfect score.

“I am definitely excited to be able to learn a profession and that is what I feel I have been doing since I started here,” she said. “I would like to get more practice to start a career and I know that will come in time. We get hands-on practice and see the concepts and learn certain techniques.”

Giselle was inspired to join the cosmetology academy after watching hairstyling videos on YouTube. She has aspirations to own a hair salon.

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“I started to really enjoy watching the videos,” she said. “I never really thought of it as a career at first. I have started to fall in love with the profession and being here has opened a lot of doors and the opportunity to learn. It’s something I want and love to do.”

Patrice Marsh, a cosmetology program coordinator, provides instruction to Giselle at the school’s facility. Marsh took an interest in the field while she was in high school. She has been teaching since 2000 and joined SouthTech Academy in 2016.

“I want to give them all the knowledge that I have,” she said. “I just love to see them blossom and it will even bring tears to my eyes. I give them encouragement, to have goals and to stay focused and improve. We see the progress at the end. It’s awesome when they come back to see me. I am able to keep that connection with them.”

Marsh said the cosmetology profession can provide students a variety of career paths, including working as a makeup artist and on television or movie sets.

“Giselle is hungry and she wants it and is eager to learn,” she said. “She puts in that extra effort.”

SouthTech Academy features 11 different academies, including veterinary assisting, digital film and broadcast, cosmetology, medical sciences, commercial arts, automotive service technology, music and sound production, auto collision body repair, business management, information technology and culinary arts.


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