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Pittsburgh Public Schools Secondary Transition Services

March 21, 2018 Practice Brief


Program Summary: The Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) Office of Transition Services uses a work-based learning approach to prepare students with disabilities to enter the workforce and transition to independence. PPS offers three different work-based learning programs for youth ranging in age from 14 to 21. While all the programs provide career preparation and a supportive connection to the workplace, each program is designed for a different group of students with disabilities and therefore operates in distinct ways to meet its students’ needs. Two of the programs, Start on Success (SOS) and Community Based Vocational Education (CBVE), are offered to students currently attending PPS high schools. SOS currently operates through seven district high schools and the CBVE program operates through six different high schools. Both of these programs serve as a link between school and the workplace and prepare youth for competitive employment upon graduation. Youth develop employability skills, such as responsibility, communication skills, flexibility, self-monitoring, and time management, through hands-on experience in a supportive work environment. Worksite partnerships and opportunities cover a wide range of career interests such as carpentry, plumbing, mailing services, payroll, nursing, radiology, food services, and childcare.

For students who are ages 18-21 with moderate disabilities, PPS offers a program in the community called City Connections. The City Connections program assists students to reach employment, post-secondary education and training, and independent living transition outcomes while in a community-based working and learning environment. During the program, youth work to further develop their independent living skills and career readiness skills with support from transition services staff and agencies in the community. Independent living is a key component of the program; youth either live on a college campus or in an apartment building.

Program Structure/Design: Both school-based programs, Start on Success (SOS) and Community Based Vocational Education (CBVE) provide students with work preparation experiences on real worksites. Youth receive support from adults both back at school and on the worksite to identify their strengths and the skills that need further development. Students have the opportunity to gain confidence and leadership skills as they complete assignments in the work environment. Students in both programs also learn about their rights as employees and gain skills in self-advocacy. While similar in approach, SOS and CBVE were designed for different student groups and therefore do differ in some ways.

SOS is a three-year program for high school students with learning disabilities. Students are selected for the program while in 9th grade and begin participating during 10th grade. Schools participating in the SOS program have a Special Education Transition teacher who manages the program and teaches the career readiness curriculum. During all three years, students attend a daily career development class taught by the transition teacher. This class covers a variety of career development topics such as self-exploration, the job search process, resume writing, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and employees’ rights, workplace attire, and how to handle conflicts in the workplace. While in 10th grade, students participate in career exploration activities in addition to developing and carrying out a service learning project in their own neighborhood.

In 11th grade, students are matched with professionals in the community as they participate in career mentorship. Over the course of eight weeks, students travel to their mentors’ workplaces once a week for three hours of mentoring at a time. For some of the youth, this is their first exposure to work. Mentors and students follow a guiding workbook, and each week they discuss a career development topic, such as professionalism, networking, written and unwritten rules, and communication. Mentors work in a variety of fields and include an ADA Compliance Officer for the City of Pittsburgh, a nursing manager from Allegheny General Hospital, a first grade teacher, and the owner of a coffee shop.

During their senior year of high school, students participate in a paid internship program for two hours a day, five days a week, throughout the duration of the entire school year. Program staff match students with an internship placement that aligns with their career interests. During their internship, each student is paired with a worksite supervisor who provides training and support relevant to the specific skills needed at their worksite. Transition teachers are also available during the two-hour internship period to travel around to worksites, assess progress, and assist with any concerns or needs that arise from the student or the workplace supervisor. The SOS program uses a community-based skills assessment which combines feedback from the worksite supervisor, teachers, and students to monitor each student’s progress in developing work skills and preparing for employment.

In the years leading up to their internship, students receive travel training based on their needs so that they are able to travel to and from their internship independently. Eleventh and 12th grade students also have the opportunity to participate in college experiences, such as the Carnegie Mellon University Class called Decision Makers. Some students also participate in the Promoting Academic Success (PAS) concurrent enrollment program at a local community college. The SOS program currently operates in seven of the district’s high schools and serves over 130 students, 60 of which are in paid internships. Due to the program’s level of workplace partnerships, SOS has 63 different mentorship placements and 71 different internship placements.

The CBVE program was designed for students ages 14-21 for whom competitive employment is not immediately available. Participants are primarily youth with intellectual and/or physical disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. Prior to starting on the worksite, students participate in Job Club days during which they learn employability skills taught by transition services assistant teachers and program coordinators. Students in CBVE participate in a non-paid vocational experience for which they receive academic credit. Work-based experiences may start at any time depending on a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals and recommendation from their special education teacher. In CBVE, each participant is offered opportunities and supports that closely align with their IEP goals. Students receive support from a job coach while at the worksite and in travel to and from the worksite. Some students may be paired individually with a job coach or may be in a group of up to four students depending upon their individual needs and IEP goals. Through the program, students and staff are able to identify vocational strengths and needs to assist with goals for the IEP process and raise student awareness and exposure to the real world of work. To understand students’ levels of preparation for employment, staff assess students in multiple ways. Job coaches and teachers consider both students’ performance in job tasks on the worksite as well as their employability and soft skills, such as being punctual and clocking in and out. Through this ongoing process, job coaches are able to work with the student, as well as the teachers, family, and counselor, to help the student overcome any barriers to employment.

The City Connections program is tailored to the needs of older youth with moderate disabilities outside of the high school setting. Students either live at an apartment or on a college campus which provides an age-appropriate living setting with access to real work, community engagement, and independent living experiences. Youth in the program participate in daily living instruction, community access and recreation opportunities, and work-based experiences. Youth are connected to community agencies that offer support as they enter the world of work. These agencies include Life’s Work of Western PA, UPMC Supported Employment, Goodwill, Easter Seals, and Achieva/Parkway Industries. The community-based agencies assist students with interest assessments, work preparation, job development, job coaching and support, and follow-along services. Youth in the City Connections program also participate in travel training and stranger awareness training and volunteer at a variety of community settings.

States of Operation: Pennsylvania

Youth Targeted: SOS program participants are high school students in grades 10-12 with learning disabilities. CBVE program participants are youth ages 14-21 for whom competitive employment is not immediately obtainable. Participants are primarily students with intellectual and/or physical disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. City Connections participants are youth ages 18-21 with disabilities who may have difficulty entering employment upon graduation. Students are recommended to the program by teachers or transition staff and assessed individually to determine whether or not the program is suitable for them. While the youth have a wide range of disabilities, each needs additional support in order to be prepared for the workforce.

ODEP Funded: No
Profile Year: 2017


Career Preparation and Work-Based Learning: PPS Transition Services offers students the opportunity to learn about work through experiencing real workplaces. Through work-based experiences, students are able to learn about themselves – their interests, strengths, and needs – and about the variety of employment opportunities and what work is really like on a day-to-day basis. Students experience work in a supportive environment that encourages them to develop their self-advocacy skills as they are also developing their self-awareness and an understanding of their rights as employees. Students develop work skills through experience on the job, such as self-monitoring, problem solving, time management, and team work. PPS aims to match students with work experiences specific to their career interests. For example, one student was matched with an architecture firm and worked on both structural design and interior design projects during her internship. Other students have been matched with the University of Pittsburgh’s Police Department. Students in this internship site begin mainly in the office learning about the Department’s administrative functions and eventually have the opportunity to ride along with officers on calls. One student’s successful internship with the University of Pittsburgh’s Police Department led to a full-time job with the security company used by the University. These experiences make a big difference in students’ understanding of career options and the actual work responsibilities.

Before students enter a worksite, transition services staff and teachers prepare them for what to expect from their work placement and also what their work placement will expect from them. Youth learn about workplace etiquette, what to wear, and the importance of being on time. Students in the SOS program learn these skills through their career development class. Students in the SOS program also prepare for their internship by spending eight weeks meeting with a mentor at a worksite. Students in the CBVE program prepare for work experiences by participating in job club days led by transition services assistant teachers and special education teachers. These days are part of the transition services offered to all students regardless of how soon they will be starting a work experience. Students in the CBVE program are provided support that is consistent with their individual needs at the workplace. Transition services staff travel with them to the worksite and provide additional preparation as needed. Through these supported preparation experiences, youth are better prepared for success in their workplace experiences and internships.

Youth Development and Leadership: PPS transition services programs help youth develop their leadership and self-advocacy skills in preparation for independence. Youth explore their own interests and learn about a wide variety of careers to determine which ones may fit their interests. Each high school has a transition counselor, who is also a certified vocational rehabilitation counselor, for students with IEPs. Transition counselors meet with students to help them explore their interests and the careers that best fit these interests. They are supported in developing a career goal and deciding what steps they need to take to achieve their goal. These experiences help youth develop their self-determination skills and their ability to make informed choices about their future. By being on the worksite with access to supportive adults, students also develop self-advocacy skills as they learn about the ways in which they work best. PPS Transition Services Program Coordinators help to maintain open communication between teachers, family, transition services staff, and worksite staff. In-person meetings beyond traditional IEP meetings are scheduled depending upon the needs of the student, but the coordinator’s role in facilitating communication between all parties is integral to maintaining relationships with each adult involved. Transition services staff help them to understand their rights as employees and encourage them to talk to their supervisors about any concerns or needs that they have. By beginning to advocate for themselves while they have the support of transition services, youth are able to practice and gain confidence in their ability to advocate for themselves in future employment situations. Another way that students in the SOS develop leadership skills is through service learning. In the first year of the SOS experience, students develop and implement a service learning project to meet the needs they see within their community. By designing and implementing their own project, students can see themselves as leaders and individuals who can make a difference in their own community. Youth in the program also participate in events in which PPS transition services has been asked to share information about the program. The youth prepare their own remarks to share about the experience alongside the adults.

Connecting Activities: Youth in all the PPS transition services programs participate in travel training programs that are consistent with their needs to prepare them to travel independently. Youth in the City Connections program are connected to community agencies that provide job skills preparation, training, and support. These connections enable the older youth to learn how to access community-based support that will continue to be available to them as they transition out of the program and into independent adulthood. By the time youth leave the City Connections program, they have each developed a plan to obtain further training and education or to enter the workforce. City Connections staff members also hold meetings with the youth’s family to ensure that everyone understands the plan and their role in supporting the plan. In addition, prior to leaving City Connections, youth are connected to supports and services in the community so that they will be equipped to access community supports as an adult.


According to a 2015 data report, PPS had a total enrollment of 23,471 with 4,287 students (18.3 %) enrolled in special education. Of those in special education, 30.6% were identified as having a specific learning disability, 11.5% as having autism, 12.9% as having emotional disturbance, and 12.3% as having an intellectual disability.

In PPS, there are over 1,800 students with IEPs between the ages of 14-21. The transition services department of PPS consists of a district transition coordinator, transition program coordinator, transition teachers, transition counselors, and employment specialists. There is at least one transition counselor assigned to each 9-12th grade school, 6-12th grade school, and special/center school. Transition counselors serve students ages 14-21 with IEPs and each has an average caseload of 120 students. Counselors provide support on personal, academic, career, or transition related issues, as well as assisting to identify and provide information on transition services, activities, programs, and resources. The counselor serves as a liaison with educators, agencies, services providers, and employers, and refers students to the appropriate community service providers. With their transition counselors, students take a variety of assessments to identify and develop transition goals and complete transition components of their IEP. Transition counselors also link students to adult services and refer them to appropriate PPS transition programs such as SOS and CBVE. PPS Transition Services Program Coordinators communicate with the parents of students in their programs in an effort to get them involved and to assuage any concerns that the parents may have with the program. This open communication with parents and family members is a key part of the program’s success.

Within the seven district’s high schools were the SOS program operates, special education transition teachers play a major role in implementing the program. They teach the daily career development class, support students on the worksite, complete transition assessments, and coordinate monthly meetings. Teachers also serve as the worksite’s primary contact at the school. They address any concerns and questions that the worksite partners may have.

The SOS program’s paid internships are funded through a braided funding model. Student wages are paid through Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funding from Partner 4 Work and the local Workforce Development Board. The Pittsburgh Office of Vocational Rehabilitation also provides some funding through individual student On the Job Training (OJT) contracts.

The CBVE program operates in six different high schools and provides work-based experiences to about 75 students. School-site career preparation and readiness services through job club days are provided to around 150 students in the district.

The City Connections program currently operates in six different sites throughout Pittsburgh; two are located on college campuses and four are based at apartment sites.


In the 2016-2017 school year, 191 of 1,050 Pittsburgh Public Schools students who receive special education services participated in paid work-based learning experience in the community and 340 participated in unpaid work-based learning experience in the community.

  • Among students in the SOS Transition Program, 91% graduated or otherwise left the program (three students of these students remained in school for continued programming) and 72% were working in either subsidized or unsubsidized employment and/or were enrolled in post-secondary within the first quarter following graduation/program completion (July – Sept. 2017).
  • Among students in the CITY Connections (18-21) Program, 27 students participated in paid work-based learning experience in the community and 77 students participated in unpaid work-based learning experience in the community.
  • The SOS Program has been profiled in multiple publications for its successful practices. These profiles highlight the collaborative approach of the SOS program between multiple agencies, such as vocational rehabilitation, the school system, and employer partners.

These publications include:


Program Name: Start on Success and Community Based Vocational Education
Street Address: 2323 Brighton Road
City: Pittsburgh
State: PA

Contact Person: Crystal Evans, M.S. CRC
Contact Title: Transition Facilitator
Contact Email:

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