A New Kind of Classroom – the only one of its kind in Chicago!

Josh Long, principal of Southside Occupational Academy, ensures that each of his 275 students receives a personalized education. Josh is revolutionizing the look and feel of classrooms to meet each student’s need. Josh shares more about Southside’s programs in his own words below.

Path to Independence

Southside Occupational Academy is a transition center for students with disabilities between the ages of 16-21. Our students come here after they’ve participated in a special education program within a general education high school. The goal of all of our classes is to give students the education that they need. We do this in a personalized way for each student. Ultimately, we help them develop the skills they need to be as independent as possible within their communities upon graduation.

Learning by Doing

The programs we’ve implemented at our school have all been designed to provide functional, hands-on instruction to help students gain the skills that they need. When we walk around the school, you’ll see that there are a number of learning labs everywhere. When I started seven years ago, you would find regular classrooms with desks and chairs in a row—the kind you might find in a general education environment. Many of our students have moderate cognitive disabilities. They don’t learn by doing worksheets or listening to a lecture. Now we have classrooms modeled after retail and grocery stores. We have culinary arts, carpentry and custodial labs—just to name a few. Our students learn skills in an environment they’re likely to encounter outside of school. They’re then practicing these skills day after day, which will increase their independence.

Take the custodial lab, for example. If you were working in an environmental services facility, you might go to a closet or a small room where you would open the door and find different chemicals and tools. We’ve expanded that into a classroom space so that we can teach students to use visuals to perform specific tasks that might be required in their daily lives.

Expanding Ideas

Our in-school learning labs were just the start. I participated in the Cahn Fellows Program in the 2016-17 school year, and it was extremely beneficial. I was able to spend several days in New York touring schools, meeting with like-minded peers and just really seeing how they lead their schools. It was a way to glean so many ideas from their processes and practices that they use for students. Bringing some of those ideas back to Chicago, I was inspired to form partnerships with area organizations to increase Southside’s presence in the community. Organizations like the Navy Pier and the Shedd Aquarium let us use their facilities as real-world classrooms. We’re up to 10 different classrooms now that we send our students out to on a daily basis. Students are paired with mentors at those sites, and participate in experiences and develop skills that will help them as they move on to their adult lives.

Real-World Classroom

Our model consists of sending a teacher, a paraprofessional and up to 13 students to these different partner sites across the city. Within each group, we have students who can perform skills at different levels and require differentiated supervision, so we form independent, semi-independent and supervised groups. Each site has designated mentors who work side-by-side with students. With our mentors in the food service industry, we ask them, “We know you work in the kitchen and serve food. Would you be interested in having one of our students put on the uniform and work next to you so you can share some of your wisdom?”

If you go to the food court at the Museum of Science and Industry, you’ll see workers who serve pizza. During our partner visits, these workers will stand next to our students and show them how to serve pizza and interact with customers. Mentors have shared with us that they feel more enriched and their lives are better. Our students also feel enriched and are receiving on-the-job training. We actually have four students who were just hired at the Museum of Science and Industry, so now they’re employed. We’re proud of the opportunities these partnerships have afforded our students. These young adults have gained skills that allow them to be considered for jobs they may not have otherwise been eligible for.

Southside Occupational Academy will expand to a second site housed in Drake Elementary School in the fall of 2017. Josh will continue to build partnerships with community organizations to ensure more opportunities for students to gain valuable skills.