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Creating Life-Long Learners Among Youth with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities


The Issue

Woods Services of Pennsylvania and its affiliate, Archway Programs of New Jersey, offer innovative approaches aligned with best practices in the field which help young adults acquire the vocational skills and experience they need to be able to successfully transition to adulthood and the world of work. Young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) need specialized education, vocational training and supports as they progress through an educational path that will help prepare them for employment. According to the American Community Survey, there are nearly 40 million people in the U.S. with disabilities, or 12.6% of the population.1 Economic disparities exist between people with and without disabilities—more than 21.2% of people with disabilities of working age live in poverty, compared to 13.8% of people without disabilities. There is also a dramatic disparity in employment status between people with and without disabilities. In the U.S. only 34.9% of people with disabilities ages 18-64 were employed, compared to 76% of people without disabilities, and this employment gap has been steadily rising since 2008.1 The rates of employment among people with disabilities in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania reflect national rates; the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania published rates that were as low as 20%.2 In fact, since the passage of the ADA in 1990, the number of people employed has dropped from approximately 40%.3 

Why should we care about the economic status of people with disabilities? Socio-economic factors can have a negative, deep impact on health and other life domains for all people, and for people with disabilities, the disparities may be even more significant.4 To reverse the trend of increasing unemployment among people with disabilities, it is critical to infuse education programs with a rich range of vocational experiences, tailored to students’ interests, goals and plans and to plan for the transition to adulthood as early as possible.

Background on Woods Services and Archway Programs Educational and Vocational Models

The innovative approaches implemented in the educational programs of both Woods Services and Archway Programs help young adults develop the skills they need for successful transition to adulthood and employment. Each organization has developed variations on the themes of creating life-long learners, incorporating best practices in helping youth transition from school to employment, and nurturing partnerships in the business community to provide the broadest possible range of learning and experiences for their students. Each organization’s approach is rooted in the philosophy of self-determination. While Woods Services provides educational programming for students in its residential programs, Archway Schools are day programs serving children and youth from area school districts. Both educational programs reach children and youth K-12 (ages 5 through 21) with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who also frequently have mental and behavioral health diagnoses that result in challenging behaviors. A significant number of students also have serious medical conditions. All students have an individualized education plan (IEP) which determines the educational plan and course of therapeutic treatment, based on individualized goals for each student. These goals also include post-secondary vocational interests and goals as well as transition planning. Transition planning begins at least by age 14 if not before.

Research shows that the following components are critical to the successful transition of youth with I/DD to the world of employment and living as independently as possible: career-related work experience, with appropriate supports, paid or unpaid internships, occupational education and skill development, social skills, self-advocacy and job-seeking skills.5 Each of the programs has incorporated these best practices, with additional innovations.

Highlights from Archway Programs

Archway Programs, based in Atco, NJ, operates two schools that serve day students with I/DD from the surrounding area. In addition to the schools, Archway Programs provides a broad range of services, including before and after school programming throughout several counties in New Jersey, early intervention services to identify and address developmental delays, mental health services for children with behavioral health challenges and adults with severe mental illness, and residential services in three counties. 

To help improve the employment outlook for youth with I/DD, Archway has developed several innovative solutions. Since 2003, Archway has operated the Career Education Center embedded in its schools, which began with six school-to-work training areas:

  • Merchandising/Retailing
  • Horticulture
  • Communication Technology
  • Food Services/Hospitality
  • Maintenance
  • Banking/Finance

These training areas were established in the former wood shop section of the school which had become outdated. Students participate in training in each area of focus and, through partnerships established with area businesses, were placed in jobs that enabled them to put skills into practice and gain additional real-world experience. These partnerships included ShopRite, Coca Cola, Pizza Hut, Target, BJs, Walmart, Home Depot, Kohls, Wawa, and TD Bank. New business community partners include IHOP and Virtua Hospital. The program entails two major components, Community-Based Instruction and Structured Learning Experience, which incorporate four steps through which students progress:

  1. Classroom instruction
  2. On-campus work experience
  3. Off-campus job sampling
  4. Cooperative education and job placement

On-campus work experiences include employment in the food and nutrition department, maintenance services, administrative offices, Owl’s Nest Café and School Store, broadcast TV studio, T-shirt press, wood-working station, and the auto-detailing station. 

The Community-Based Instruction and Structured Learning Experience programs are authorized by the New Jersey Department of Education and are aligned with the Core Curriculum Content Standards for 21st Century Life and Careers, which begins in 4th grade.

In 2009, Archway Schools developed an additional innovation by launching a social enterprise with two components: From the Ground Up Flower Shop and the Growing Greenhouse, which has added floral design, plant propagation and landscaping to the courses of study. The operation has grown into a retail profit center through which all students learn skills such as greeting the public, taking orders, preparing products for sale, billing and delivery of products. Some students progress further to learn advanced floral design techniques taught by experienced floral design and horticulture staff members. 

In 2014, a broadcasting studio was developed where students provide daily briefings that are broadcast into each classroom every morning. Students report on events of the school following specific themes that may be the focus of study that month. Examples of themes include Black History Month, women’s rights, the presidential election, and major sports events like the Super Bowl or the World Series.

In 2015, The Owl’s Nest Café was launched, starting as a once-a-week lunch café for staff of the school. In 2016, it expanded campus-wide and includes training in food purchasing, menu planning, food preparation, food service, clean up, and cashier duties. The Café itself is a lovely spot with tables decorated with flowers supplied by From the Ground Up Flower Shop. 

As students progress through the program, they become eligible at age 14 to apply for and work on campus for an hourly wage, and at 16 they may apply for and work off-campus for an hourly wage. The ability to participate in these opportunities is based on achievements they have made in behavior and their educational program. Transportation and an on-site job coach are provided for students to be able to successfully meet their employment obligations. Coaching also includes appropriate work attire, communication skills, and problem solving as challenges arise.   

Highlights from Woods Services Education Programs

Woods Services, based in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, provides a comprehensive menu of services for children and adults with disabilities, behavioral diagnoses and medical challenges. Woods provides special education services through its approved private special education school to more than 300 students, the majority of whom reside on Woods’ campus and receive therapeutic services. Building on its successful education programs, Woods established the Brookwood School, which provides a comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach to pre-vocational work-based learning and pre-employment training for youth ages 14-21. The vocational areas of focus include:

  • Landscaping and Horticulture
  • Warehouse and Retail
  • Housekeeping and Janitorial Services
  • Beauty and Grooming

Hands-on learning is the key to the program’s success; discrete sections of the school are dedicated to each vocational area of focus so that students can learn and practice skills prior to participating in field trips, job shadowing, internships and employment at area businesses and nonprofits. The curriculum incorporates job readiness and independent living skills that are based on best practices in helping youth with I/DD to transition to adulthood and to competitive employment. These include exploring career options, writing resumes and cover letters, completing job applications, conducting interviews, and learning and practicing the interpersonal skills needed for employment. In addition, students learn through a hands-on approach food planning and preparation, personal grooming, personal finance, self-advocacy skills and skills needed to live in the community. 

A major component of the Brookwood program are the work-based learning experiences, which begin with assessing student interests, and progress to providing job exploration opportunities, job shadowing on- and off-campus, internships and on- or off-campus employment with area businesses. Woods Services’ social enterprises, Yellow Daffodil and Common Grounds Café, each offer opportunities to learn and practice hands-on skills in horticulture, floral design, food preparation, operating a cash register, customer service and communication, and time management. Yellow Daffodil, a flower shop which also sells gifts, lotions and candles made by students and other Woods residents, operates in three locations, two of which are in the community. Common Grounds Café and store serves breakfast and lunch to Woods’ 1900 employees, and operates a small market. Each social enterprise is managed by professional staff with expertise in the areas of horticulture, floral design, and food services. 

Students are connected with the social enterprises to learn about careers in each area of focus, to conduct job shadowing, and to participate in paid employment. One student’s experience exemplifies the value of vocational training and work experience. Now on the cusp of graduation, Frank had the experience of working over a period of four years in a range of positions, including working as a shift supervisor at Domino’s Pizza, and on-campus with Woods’ maintenance department, where he most recently was trained in HVAC maintenance. He plans to attend post-secondary training and intends to take his entrepreneurial spirit to the next level by operating his own construction business in the future. Other off-campus employment for Woods students is coordinated through the school’s employment coordinator, who develops partnerships with area businesses. 

About Woods

Woods is a nonprofit multi-service healthcare and human services organization that provides innovative, comprehensive and integrated health-and-behavior, education, workforce, and care management services to children and adults in the intellectual/developmental disability, child welfare, behavioral and acquired brain injury public health sectors. The mission of Woods is to support children and adults with disabilities or challenges to achieve their highest potential and independence through innovative and individualized approaches that promote learning and personal fulfillment.

Woods provides the appropriate level of care that ranges from personal assistance to highly skilled nursing and complex medical care that can only be delivered by disability-trained professionals. Woods and its affiliate partners (nonprofit membership corporations with Woods as the sole member) primarily serve individuals from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, but have a national reach given their expertise in serving people who are medically and behaviorally frail and vulnerable. Over the past decade, Woods has expanded its mission and reach by affiliating and partnering with like-minded compassionate nonprofits, such as Brian’s House and Tabor Services in Pennsylvania and Allies and Archway Programs in New Jersey.

About Archway Programs

Archway Programs, Inc. is a not-for-profit corporation that operates adolescent, juvenile, and adult treatment and educational facilities. Archway’s programs include early intervention and child care, broad-based special education in a large school setting, at-risk adolescent treatment, group homes, adolescents and adult mental health counseling, senior citizen day care, summer camp, and professional staff development. Archway Programs was founded in 1965 and is based in Atco, New Jersey. Archway Programs became an affiliate of Woods in 2013. 


1. Lewis Kraus, “2016 Disability Statistics Annual Report” University of New Hampshire, Institute on Disability/UCED (January 2017), accessed March 20, 2017,

2. “Executive Order 2016-03: Recommendations. Establishing ‘Employment First’ Policy and Increasing Competitive-Integrated Employment for Pennsylvanians with a Disability,” PA Governor’s Office of Administration (September 2016), accessed March 20, 2017,

3. Gary N. Siperstein, Miriam Heyman, and Jeffrey E. Stokes, "Pathways to employment: A national survey of adults with intellectual disabilities." Journal of vocational rehabilitation 41, no. 3 (2014): 165-178.

4. Amanda Reichard, Hayley Stolzle, and Michael H. Fox, "Health disparities among adults with physical disabilities or cognitive limitations compared to individuals with no disabilities in the United States." Disability and health journal 4, no. 2 (2011): 59-67.

5. Paula D. Kohler and Sharon Field, "Transition-focused education foundation for the future." The Journal of Special Education 37, no. 3 (2003): 174-183.

About the authors
Marge Conner-Levin, MSW, is currently CEO of Archway Programs, an affiliate of Woods.  Ms. Conner-Levin brings over 30 years of experience developing and leading programs for individuals of all ages who have mental illness, socioeconomic challenges, and intellectual and developmental disabilities.  She is a passionate advocate for not only creating innovative opportunities for the individuals that she helps serve, but in providing families with education and advocacy training.  Ms. Conner-Levin was an early adopter of tele-video technology to assist in the delivery of psychiatric services for underserved populations.  She continues widening the scope of the use of technology for continual improvement in service delivery for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Liz Hayden, MPH and MS Ed, is Strategy Development Director at Woods Services.  She is responsible for providing strategic guidance in program and resource development to Woods and its family of affiliate organizations, identifying funding opportunities and writing grants, concept papers and policy papers. She brings 24 years of program development and management in social services, public health, adult literacy, ESL, intergenerational programming, and higher education to her role.