FHN’s Essential Skills Program Helps Students Prepare for Their Lives Past High School


Credit to Ankita Pandurangi

A student sits in the special education class, learning about money. They learn about how to save, spend and use money in their lives and how their money affects them.

One of the cornerstones of special education is the essential skills program. This program is designed to facilitate the needs of students and prepare them for life after high school. Essential skills students participate in many different activities, from core classes to career exploration outside of school.

“We’re part of the school, but students in our classes have different needs throughout their day that can’t be met in regular [education] classrooms,” essential skill teacher Jennifer Barry said. “Sometimes our classes focus on life skills and just supporting them with those skills after high school.”

Inside the classroom, students have subjects such as English or math. However, the assignments they might get have a heavy emphasis on real-life application. 

“Currently in math, we are working on what we call banking basics,” fellow essential skills teacher Juli Smith said. “It’s on how to pay bills, how to keep a check register, how to write checks, how to use debit cards. Almost like a personal finance class.”

Students in the program may have a few classes in essential skills, but also go to other classes, such as elective credits. One such student, sophomore Kyla Dalton, says she finds essential skills fun.

“It’s pretty chill,” Dalton said. “It’s not as hard as I thought. I’m close with most of my teachers and I’m friends with classmates.”

A key part of essential skills is Career Based Instruction, or CBI. In the past, students have gone out to different businesses, such as Walgreens, in order to get experience working. Students learn about jobs in retail and how to interact with customers and other employees. Additionally, students may work in the school’s cafeteria helping staff prepare lunch for students.

“[CBI] is great for students. It’s giving them the life skills they need for after high school,” Barry said. “It also helps them work on social skills within the school setting.”

A more selective program offered to students in essential skills is Applied Retail and Business Skills, or ARBS. This program is offered to juniors and seniors, and takes place at Lewis and Clark Career Center. Students help run a snack bar and get more experience in retail and food service. Compared to CBI, ARBS requires more from students and gives them more responsibility.

“[ARBS] is a competitive program for students with disabilities, there is an application process for students to get into it,” Smith said. “Typically, only a handful of students from our high school attend. They need someone to be independent and are on the path to be competitively employable.”

One of the biggest challenges of essential skills is accommodating the variety of needs students may have. This challenge also manifests inside the classroom, where assignments may vary between individual students.

“Let’s say an individual needs to work on being able to write out their personal information,” Smith said. “They are going to practice that, but then the student right next to them may know their personal information, but can they use their personal information and put it on a form.I think that’s one of the biggest challenges in essential skills, just the different levels and abilities in each classroom.”

To help facilitate essential skills, teachers like Smith and Barry rely on paraspecialists, support staff that helps students with their needs. Unfortunately, staff availability is another challenge the essential skills program faces.

“Right now, it’s consistency with staffing and making sure we are able to support the students who need it the most,” Barry said. “It kind of puts a little bit of burden on our day, making sure students and staff are supported.”

Supporting students has always been the main goal of school. Smith and Barry, along with other essential skills teachers and paraspecialists, play a vital role in supporting dozens of students. For them, the work brings much enjoyment.

“We are with them all four years,” Barry said. “We get to kind of watch them through that whole process and get to know them very well. We usually see a lot of growth over four years, it’s a benefit to be able to witness that, being a part of helping them figure out their path.”