Fairfax Co. special education students revitalize green space, learn work skills

In February, work placement opportunities for special education students at West Springfield High School in Fairfax, Virginia, seemed to be all dried up.

They had just returned to in-person learning from a long stretch of virtual lessons. During a typical year, the school’s employment and transition representative Rebecca Cousins would have helped the students find jobs in the community, where they could get hands-on experience and learn work skills.

But the usual job sites that students in the school’s Work Awareness and Transition program would be placed into had been shut down because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

That’s when Cousins got the idea to help students get hands-on work experience close to home.

A courtyard space on the school’s campus had become overgrown with weeds and was in need of some serious TLC.

“So we kind of decided that it would be a good idea to instead have them do an in-school job site and learn some landscaping skills by renovating one of the courtyards at West Springfield High School,” Cousins said in an interview with WTOP.

Throughout the program, Cousins and her team worked with 18 students: some with developmental disabilities, orthopedic impairments or autism.

The goal, she said, was to provide the students with a valuable, hands-on work opportunity where they could thrive and learn important employment and independence skills to better prepare them for the future. And the program did just that.

In a news release by Fairfax County Public Schools, student John Szczepanik said the skills he learned from the program gave him confidence.

“They asked, ‘could I help with some mulch’ and I said, yes, I can do it! ‘Can you help us with weeding?‘ Yes, I can do it,” Szczepanik said.

Now, after months of pulling weeds, spreading mulch and planting seeds, the courtyard is once-again vibrant.

“They really made a difference,” Cousins said. “They were able to get their hands dirty and really just get outside and do some meaningful work.”

“It just lifted the mood, not just of the students, but I think the staff as well … They would grab their gloves, they would grab the shovels, they would grab the weed pickers and go out and pick some of the weeds out. We marched. We did some planting. And they just really seem to enjoy turning the courtyard into a more usable, friendly space.”

Cousins said she hopes the makeshift work experience turns into a continuous job site for students in the program. She sees opportunities for the landscaping crew to expand to other sites on campus, and in the future branch out to do gardening work in the community.

For now, she’s looking forward to checking out the garden’s progress when school starts up again.

“We’re going to begin again in the fall and see what has grown in the garden,” she said.

WTOP’s Mike Murillo contributed to this report.

Lauren Hamilton

Lauren Hamilton is an Associate Producer at WTOP and a graduate of the University of Maryland. She enjoys covering the intersection of arts, culture and social justice in local communities. She began as an intern with WTOP in the summer of 2021.

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