MILFORD — Some of the state’s high school students most at risk of floundering and being unable to find meaningful work are about to get a much-needed boost.

The finishing touches are now being put on the new Life Skills & Vocational Training Center at the Boys & Girls Village on Wheelers Farms Road in Milford. The new 4,850-sq.-ft. center, which is expected to be completed by Thanksgiving and open to students in January, will offer three new programs: culinary arts, automotive repair and modern manufacturing.

Although the building is not quite finished, some classes have already begun in an alternate location, according to Boys & Girls Village Vice President of Educational and Vocational Service Dan French. The response from the students has been very positive, he said.

“The kids appear to really enjoy it,” French said. “They’re fully engaged, they’re enthusiastic. They are learning a lot of interactional skills - how to work in a group, how to follow directions, how to be a productive employee.”

The 12 students in the culinary class rotate so there are two at a time in the kitchen. At the new center, the culinary program will be held inside of a restaurant-style training room.

The center will provide vocational skills to high school special education students at the Charles F. Hayden Day School. The school, which is part of Boys & Girls Village, is targeted for students who have emotional and/or behavioral disabilities. In addition to vocational training, the center will also offer classes in life skills and teach students about self-care. There will be classes on how to cook, find an appropriate place to live, and manage money.

The building was created as a result of a $1,000,001 grant awarded last January from the State of Connecticut Office of Policy and Management.

The need

According to French, many of the students who attend the Boys & Girls Village are not able to go to a typical vocational technical high school, since many of those schools don’t have the capacity to work with students with significant emotional and behavioral needs.

“Those schools can work with some students that have special education disabilities, but with most students that we have, the impairment is more severe and they’re not going to be able to function at one of those types of vocational high schools,” he said.

Additionally, special education programs have traditionally not had strong vocational programming, he said.

“Students that are at risk, once they finish high school, really flounder and are not able to find traction and get into adult life in a productive way because they just don’t have the skill-set,” French said. “They haven’t had much assistance in vocational training and overall job skills.”

The new program will focus on teaching students about responsibility and interpersonal skills on the job.

“We’ve had conversations with Housatonic Community College and Gateway College,” French said.

The staff there tell us that that’s one of the primary things that they work on. It’s not just teaching the actual skill, but the overall interpersonal responsibility skills.”

Kay Mosner, director of educational and vocational planning, said there is a need for hands-on curriculum for the kind of students that Boys & Girls Village teaches.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for these kids that do have those disabilities, that they can now work with their hands,” she said. “This gives them another dimension to their academic program. It’s more up and moving, which helps these kids.”

The new programs are being taught by both special education teachers and teachers specific to the type of skill being taught. About 90 students in grades kindergarten through 12 currently attend the school, from all over the state. About 70 of those students are participating in full in-person instruction. The remaining students participate in a virtual program through Google classroom.

The new vocational program is primarily for high school students. Students in the program will be able to get college credits.

“We are in the process of trying to coordinate our curriculum with the curriculum of Housatonic and Gateway community colleges so that when students take our vocational courses here in high school, they’re simultaneously getting college credits for the course,” French said. “We’re excited about that.”

Additionally, students will get the opportunity to earn industry credentials.

“Our courses and programs are aligned with industry certifications, so it’s conceivable to not only have a Gateway or Housatonic certificate upon graduation, but also industry credentials,” French said.

Once students complete the program, they also will have a chance to move on to internships that could lead to future employment opportunities, he said.

Particularly for this student population, the new program offerings at the center are “a real game changer,” French said. “Once they leave here, they are ready to either attend college or step right into the world of work with some skills,” he said.

sfox@milfordmirror.com