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Operates to provide real-world, work experience

Sacramento, Calif. – Nick Perez and his classmates at the Sierra School at Eastern aren’t simply learning to use an industrial engraving machine and a full-color copier in class, they are focusing on the future.

Perez is among the student-employees ‘hired’ this semester in an enterprising, classroom-based ‘small business’ that Sierra School operates to provide real-world, work experience for students in grades 8-12 with acute emotional, behavioral and learning disabilities.

‘Once they hit my door every student is treated like an employee. They must dress, speak and behave appropriately,’ said transition specialist DeDe Cooper, who runs the ‘Sierra Works’ program. ‘If they don’t, they can be terminated.’

‘Sierra Works’ teaches our students to prepare resumes, complete job applications and conduct themselves properly in interviews. Work on the equipment gives them skills to strengthen those resumes,’ Cooper said. ‘More importantly, it builds their self-confidence, raises their self-esteem and teaches them to be more self-sufficient.’

‘This is the kind of innovative program that distinguishes the Sierra School as a leading provider of special education for our most at-risk students. We are helping these students make the transition from school-to-work in a positive and dramatic way,’ said Michael Kaufman, the President and CEO of Specialized Education Services Inc. (SESI), of Yardley, Pa. which operates six Sierra Schools in California.

The Sierra Works ‘small business’ is equipped with a sublimation heat press that lets students imprint graphics and slogans on t-shirts, tote bags, towels and mouse pads; with machines to transfer similar designs onto mugs; and an industrial-size engraver for use on wood, plastic, glass or metal.

Sierra Works also has a full-color copier and binding machine to produce booklets, reports, and brochures and fliers; a professional cutout-maker for bulletin board decorations and puzzles; a two-color poster-printer and a commercial laminating machine.

‘We’re not a professional copy center, but we could be,’ Cooper said proudly, ‘We’re not trying to compete with any other businesses. We’re here to give our students the best possible, real-life work experience. The only people who ever profit from our enterprise are our students.’

Students ages 16 and older are paid with money from a California-funded WorkAbility I grant and their ‘customers’ include other area schools, youth sports leagues and a variety of student, church and civic groups, who pay only the cost of materials.

The program works. Of the ‘Sierra Works’ graduates that Cooper tracked from 2004-10, 44-percent went on to college or vocational education programs, and 35% went to work.
Nick Perez’s dream of someday working in the rap/hip-hop industry is a far cry from the state-of-the-art poster-making machine that he most enjoys using in the Sierra Works classroom. But even at 16, Perez knows he is learning valuable life skills.
‘When I look for a job, I’ll know how to present myself ย– dress neatly, speak clearly and make eye contact on an interview,’ Perez said, brimming with confidence. ‘When I finally get a job, I’ll know that I should show up on time, do the best work I can, and behave professionally.’

‘Sierra Works builds student-confidence. Unlike traditional classroom instruction, it gives them the same kind of instruction in a more covert way. They get tangible, immediate gratification by seeing a product that they created,’ said Theresa Grant, director of the Sierra School.

‘Our program is also a reflection of hope for these kids. Many come from socio-economically disadvantaged families. For their work, they get a paycheck to take home and show their parents. It increases their pride and self-esteem,’ Grant said.

Perez, who came to the Sierra School in 2009 from Granite Oak Middle School in Rocklin, said his previous school didn’t offer similar opportunities. ‘This program puts a little money in my pocket while I learn,’ said Perez, whose most fulfilling job so far was to create posters for the Sacramento Food Bank. ‘I felt like I gave something back to people less fortunate than me.’

To learn more about the Sierra School in Sacramento, and the other 43 schools SESI operates in 11 states and the District of Columbia, please visit

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