Crystal Brown graduated in May with two diplomas — one from Walker High School and another from Jasper Beauty Academy.
Crystal went to cosmetology school to fulfill the work requirement for her Alabama Occupational Diploma. In exchange for completing 270 supervised work hours during her senior year, she was able to attend the Academy on the state’s dime.
The program also offered her help with her schoolwork from Walker’s Transition Initiative Team (WIT). With their support, Crystal passed enough portions of the Alabama High School Graduation Exam to receive a standard diploma instead of the AOD.
Three months later, Crystal has completed the written examination to get her state cosmetology license and is waiting to take the final practical exam.
She hopes to open her own shop one day.
Crystal said she knows her high school experience would have been more difficult without the AOD program.
“I know I wouldn’t have done as well in my classes, and it would have been really hard on me with trying to go to the Beauty Academy as well,” she said.
Crystal’s mother, Jackie, said the AOD allowed Crystal to be one of the few students who were prepared for a career before she graduated from high school.
“She wouldn’t have had the opportunity to really reach out and grab what she wanted,” Jackie Brown said.
The AOD program was initiated in 1997 to prepare students with special needs for the world of work.
In the early days, these students were separated from their peers and taught by special education teachers.
“After No Child Left Behind was passed, one of the stipulations is that all students have to be taught by highly qualified teachers. Most special needs teachers are not qualified in those academic areas,” said Fred Greer, a teacher at Walker High School.
Now students on the AOD track are in regular classes but are subject to a slightly different curriculum. Special education teachers have become collaborative teachers who stay in class to assist them.
“Really, we help all the students. But from time to time, we do bring our students out to give them small group instruction or individualized help,” Greer said.
Most students pursuing an AOD have a learning disability so severe that they are not able to complete the requirements for a standard diploma.
Greer said many of these students chose to drop out of school and had a difficult time finding meaningful employment before the AOD program was created.
“So many of them who stayed and were not successful just got a certificate of attendance,” Greer said.
Now AOD students are encouraged to get a job by the end of their sophomore year in high school. Greer said students have worked everywhere from the local Marshall Durbin plant to restaurants and the newspaper office.
Access to employment is made easier through the support of WIT members, which includes local business and community leaders. Parents, students and teachers also attend the regular WIT lunch meetings.
Greer estimated that at least 90 percent of AOD students successfully complete the program.
One of the AOD graduates was a popular sports star who is now attending college and playing football in Mississippi.
Others, like Crystal Brown, are on their way to success with a standard diploma in hand. Jackie Brown said the AOD program made all of Crystal’s hard work worth the struggle.
“They’re showing them how to set a goal and reach it, and she (Crystal) did. She blew the ship out of the water,” Brown said.