Through Innovation, Southside Students Work with Purpose

.@ChiPubSchools unique Southside Occupational Academy prepares young adults w/#disabilities for career success + independence - their #OnTheTable2018 welcomed #Chicago employers to visit, partner in job placement pipeline Tweet This

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ADA 25 Advancing Leadership and the Disabilities Fund participated in On the Table to initiate dialogue about tackling our region’s greatest challenges. To be successful, the disability community must be included. We aim to expand understanding and ensure that disability is recognized and taken into account at all our region’s tables.

Through #OnTheTable2018, we hosted conversations about a myriad of topics that intersect and affect the disability community. For the second year, Southside Occupational Academy shared insights on how to best support young people with disabilities as they enter the workforce.


Putting disability on the table works.

Anna Miller, human resources manager—colleague experience at Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, attended this year’s and last year’s Southside Occupational Academy On The Table. Miller was so impressed that she lobbied Hyatt corporate to establish a partnership with the school.

At the start of the 2018 school year, Hyatt placed 10 Southside Occupational Academy students in an integrated internship program—and Miller says that they’ve already made tremendous contributions towards Hyatt’s work culture.

“In the sea of Chicago Public Schools, we are the only one that’s like this, and our number one goal is to provide students with the training and experiences that make them as independent as possible in their communities upon graduation,” said Southside Occupational Academy principal Joshua Long. “We are a transition center: we have 270 students, and that looks like 270 different things; we believe in individualizing everything for our students.”

A worker wearing a chef's jacket and sequined cap pushes a tray of ingredients through a commercial kitchen
At Southside Occupational Academy, students with disabilities prepare for independent futures after graduation. The school features 23 classroom simulations of workplace environments—from a grocery store and a clothing retailer, to a carpentry shop, commercial kitchen and farm, complete with fruit trees and poultry.


Research shows that, unfortunately, such acclimation, adaptation and adjustment is atypical for local youth with disabilities—in the Chicago region, less than 30% of youth with disabilities graduate from high school.

ADA 25 Advancing Leadership 2018 Fellow Azeema Akram, who attended this year’s On The Table conversation, commended the individualized approach that Southside Occupational offers its students.

“Just from my personal experience in school and work, individualization is very necessary: Everybody is very different, even though they may have the same condition, or the same ability to do different things,” Akram said. “I had issues getting accommodations in school; this school is pretty amazing,” Akram said.

Southside Occupational school leaders took On The Table attendees on a guided tour of many of the school’s 23 classroom simulations, which included a grocery store; carpentry shop; pet store; café/coffee lounge; greenhouse; farm (with 40 fruit trees and 54 birds, including chickens and ducks); clothing/drugstore retailer; and car wash, among others. The students working in the school’s culinary arts program provided a three-course lunch for the gathering.

In addition to its recent partnership with Hyatt, Southside Occupational has been placing students at the University of Chicago Medicine, among other employers, over the last five years.

“We have a hard-wired relationship with the school at this point, and I’m excited to keep it going: [Southside Occupational Academy] is a truly special place,” said Leif Elsmo, executive director of community and external affairs at University of Chicago Medicine. “We’re proud of the folks we’ve hired, and I know the experience that the students get with us, that experiential learning, is excellent. Everyone has bought into the mission and the process, and that’s important. Our top leadership in the institution know the students, and that’s a really cool thing to watch.”

“It changes culture in a lot of ways, frankly: We’re service-oriented, taking care of patients and families, and the students are a big part of that,” Elsmo said.

Five people smile to the camera in front of a sign reading Southside Occupational Academy - Welcome
Southside Occupational’s second On the Table event invited employers and allies into a dialogue on how to best support young people with disabilities entering the workforce. ADA 25 Advancing Leadership 2018 Fellow Azeema Akram (second from left) commended the school’s individualized approach: “Everybody is very different, even though they may have the same condition, or the same ability to do different things. I had issues getting accommodations in school; this school is pretty amazing.”


Numerous representatives from the public and private sector attended the On The Table event and are now thinking about ways they might partner with the school to establish similar placement pipelines.

“We’re always trying to approach employers, putting ourselves square in the center. We’ve worked hard to get the word out there—this [school] does not exist anywhere else. I’ve been to New York, Albuquerque, San Diego… I haven’t seen anything quite like this, and we’re really proud, of course. But obviously we still have more work to do,” Long added.


The Disabilities Fund’s Inform and Act factsheet presents critical data about the landscape for youth with disabilities in our area. How can you implement a #DisabilityLens in your work and improve outcomes throughout the Chicago region? Tweet @ADA25AdvLeaders and share your plans.