By Devese “Dee” Ursery
The Collinsville Board of Education during a regular meeting on Dec.19 honored one of its students for completing the U.S. Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship program.
Keshawn Thomas, a 2022 Kahok graduate was the first to successfully complete the requirements of the apprenticeship program through Collinsville High School. He finished the landscaping apprenticeship program and has been hired on as an employee of the Collinsville Parks and Recreations Department.
Thomas will officially receive his apprenticeship certificate of completion at the Collinsville City Council meeting on Jan. 24, 2023. The apprenticeship initiative is the first of its kind in the Collinsville area for high school students with disabilities.
The program is for CHS students who are 16 years and older and who are developmentally ready to start the transition from school to work. Thomas said he likes spending time with his coworkers and they always offer help whenever he needs it.
“Working is good because I get to make money,” Thomas said. “I like cutting grass, using the weed eater and leaf blower.”
Robert and Tarica Thomas, Keshawn Thomas’s parents, said that they have seen a new sense of growth in their son, who thrives on socialization and conversation.
“Keshawn has shown more independence,” Tarica Thomas said. “He gets really excited about going to work and meeting new people. Socializing with others outside of the family and close friends is really exciting for him.”
Thomas said that her son was diagnosed with autism at 3-years-old and is high functioning, but cognitively needs more help. He loves routine and is very talkative about things that he wants to talk about.
“I would say that since the program his cognitive skills have improved,” Thomas said. “He is aware of when he has to work and his days off. He is more alert to his daily activities and things that he has to do, so I have seen him improve in that aspect.”
Thomas also said that her son has become more responsible stating that he actually takes time to get his work clothes together at night.
Catherine Kulupka, secondary transitional employment program (STEP) coordinator for CHS says that the program is partnered with the Department of Rehabilitative Services and helps students transition and prepare for life after high school.
“This apprenticeship is an amazing opportunity for our co-op students to learn on the job training and skills they need to be successful in the community,” Kulupka said. “They will acquire an apprenticeship certificate, which is absolutely amazing for them in the future.”
Kulupka said that she has taught a co-op class for the last four years and two years ago she had Thomas in her class. During that time, he was working in the school cafeteria when the apprenticeship program came to CHS from Madison County Employment and Training.
“We instantly felt that Keshawn would be an awesome candidate for that,” Kulupka said.
As student-apprentices progress through a series of demonstrated competencies, they earn their way toward certification. The amount of time required to complete the process will vary based on each student’s ability to become proficient in required skills.
Alison Underwood, director of special education explains the importance of the initiative and what it does for the student/apprentice.
“Transition planning for students with disabilities is a vital component of special education programming in preparing young adults for independence after high school,” Underwood said. “This new registered apprenticeship program expands the current transition opportunities for our students in an inclusive setting within their own community.”