High school students with developmental disabilities often need specialized training to get them ready for the jobs they want. Josh Long is the principal of a school that does just that.
At the Southside Occupational Academy in Englewood, students aged 16 to 22 get individualized attention in their academics and vocational training for several different types of jobs. They specialize in building maintenance, hospitality, culinary arts and carpentry.
Long has led the school since 2010. He recently received the Golden Apple Award, which honors the best teachers and school leaders in Chicago. He joins the Morning Shift to talk more about how his school works.
From speech pathologist to principal
Josh Long: I started in the city in the year 2000, and was placed all over the city in many different neighborhoods, from Austin to Cabrini-Green to Chatham over to Englewood. And I was in a lot of different schools and just saw a lot of differences in the programs that were being provided to students with special needs. And I went home and talked about it a lot with my wife. Finally one day she said, “Why don’t you do something about it?” And that’s when I decided I was gonna work to effect change at a higher level, and my goal was to be a principal of a school.
Classrooms that look like job sites
Long: We wanted to figure out how [we could] create real-world environments within our school to prepare students to become as independent as possible within their communities, and what we looked at was different industries that our students would have an option to either go out and experience via being a consumer or as an employee, and we thought, “Let’s create those environments here.” And then we’ll have hands-on training and prepare our students to then go out and be [the] adults they will be after graduating from school.
On the importance of wraparound services
Long: The theory of wraparound services is amazing. And what that means to me is that once a student graduates from public school, then they move on to the adult service agencies. Unfortunately, within the state of Illinois, we consistently rank at the bottom of the list for funding for adults with disabilities, for those services. And so what often happens is that our students transition to home, because there is an extensive wait list for that funding to be provided. What we’ve done over the past three to four years is really look at…”What can we do in spite of this?” And so we’ve found some amazing partners with Special Olympics Chicago, and also with the Chicago Park District. They continually provide opportunities for our students. We have also partnered with — we have a little group with Safer Foundation and Anixter — and we have employment partners with Mount Sinai Hospital and University of Chicago Hospital.
The case for hiring people with disabilities
Long: For every relationship we have with our community partners, it’s a big ask when we first walk in. You know, to say, “Hey, we would like to start this internship program, and, by the way, all of our students have disabilities. But I promise you’re going to come back to me in six months and say that you love it.” We let them see what the students can do instead of focusing on what they can’t do, and, always, our partners are very much appreciative, and love having our students within their organization.
GUEST: Josh Long, principal, Southside Occupational Academy High School
LEARN MORE: How job-training leadership won a South Side principal a Golden Apple award (Chalkbeat 4/4/19)
Business Leaders Discover the South Side’s ‘Best-Kept Secret’ (Joshua Long, writing for the Chicago Community Trust, 7/7/17)
More about the Golden Apple Awards