SANTA ROSA, Ca. Sixteen-year-old Tai Wells now knows how to transfer appliqués onto t-shirts, emboss pencils, and create custom plaques thanks to an innovative program at the Sierra School of Sonoma County that puts special-needs students to work in a school-based small business. More importantly, Tai Wells realizes her job in the school’s Transition House isn't simply about making money or merchandise. I’m not just making things. I’m making a future for myself. I'm learning things I will need to know to get a job and be independent, said Wells, brimming with confidence. Wells is among a group of students who are Transition House employees state-of-the-art equipment allows them to design graphics then imprint those designs on a variety of items like T-shirts, jerseys, napkins, mugs, dog bowls, mousepads, and drink cozies. Two other Sierra schools the Sierra Academy at San Diego and the Sierra School at Eastern in Sacramento have identical programs. Each is partly funded through a California WorkAbility I grant. Students at San Diego’s Sierra Academy are K-12th graders with mild-to-moderate disabilities including autism, Asperger’s syndrome, visual and auditory impairments, learning deficiencies, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). At the Sierra schools in Santa Rosa and Sacramento, 1st-12th grade students have a range of learning disabilities and emotional and behavioral challenges. Public school districts refer and pay tuition for students to attend each of the Sierra schools, which all offer customized instruction, low student-teacher ratios, and personal attention. We treat our students like real employees said Tai’s transition teacher, Spice Edwards. They must apply and be interviewed for a job. If hired, they must punch a time clock, behave and dress appropriately, follow instructions, and keep up with their regular schoolwork. Students, age 16 and older, are paid an 8$-per-hour learner’s wage with WorkAbility grant funds. Just like an actual job, they can even be fired. If they show improvement, they also have opportunities to reapply, Edwards explained. These programs are actually teaching our students very vital life-skills, said Brandi Bolter, transition teacher at the Sierra School of San Diego. They learn responsibility, budgeting, banking, how to prepare resumes, complete job applications, and conduct themselves properly in interviews and in the workplace. These jobs also build our student’s self-confidence, raise their self-esteem, and teach them to be more self-sufficient. They learn to advocate for themselves on-the-job and in the other phases of their life, said DeDe Cooper, transition specialist at Sierra School in Sacramento. These innovative programs distinguish Sierra Schools as a leading provider of special education in California for students who need it most. We are helping to prepare these students for their transition from school-to-work in a very positive, dramatic way, said Michael Kaufman the President and CEO of Specialized Education Services Inc. (SESI), of Yardley, Pa. which operates the Sierra schools. Each of the schools is equipped with a dye sublimation heat press that lets students imprint graphics and slogans on items like t-shirts, tote bags, and towels; and with machines to transfer similar designs onto mugs or dog bowls. Some have industrial-size engravers for use on wood, plastic, glass, or metal. The Sierra School in Sacramento also has a full-color copier and binding machine to produce greeting cards, personalized calendars, booklets, reports, brochures, and fliers. Customers for products that are created at each of the Sierra schools are usually staff and parents, area school districts, youth athletic leagues, and civic groups who only pay the cost of materials. This program is certainly not about making money or competing with an actual business. The only people who profit from these programs are our students, Spice Edwards explained. Tai Wells said she certainly enjoys earning money for her work, but she added: It’s really awesome to make things for others. Wells rattled off a list of projects she has helped to complete, but her favorite was personalized dog bowls, including one for her school’s therapy dog, Seymour. Someday, I want to work with animals, not as a veterinarian but caring for them in some way, maybe at a zoo. What I’m learning now is definitely going to help me get a job I will like, said Wells. I’m sure of it. To learn more about these three Sierra schools in California, and the other 40 schools that Specialized Education Services Inc. operates in 11 states and the District of Columbia, please visit