TAMPA — Pepin Academies charter school hopes to make downtown Tampa feel like a college campus for its transitional students with learning disabilities.
Pepin, which serves students ages 18 to 22 in addition to operating elementary, middle and high schools, is beefing up its downtown network this year, adding partnerships with the Tampa Police Department and Hillsborough County to its existing relationship with Public Defender Julianne Holt.
Students will go between those work sites and a new academic training facility. Holt's office on E Twiggs Street recently renovated a vacant first-floor room and donated it to Pepin to use as a centralized classroom space for the transitional students.
The training room allows them to stay downtown as they shift between supervised jobs at the Tampa sites and the classroom, where they learn how to apply for jobs, read bank statements and budget their money. Until now, they had to return to Pepin's school on E Hillsborough Avenue — time-consuming and problematic for those without transportation.
Figuring out how to navigate downtown also builds skills, said Crisha Scolaro, one of Pepin's founders.
"These students will learn how to walk here for their classes, almost like a college campus, and then back to their training site," she said.
Pepin students have disabilities that may affect how they process information and how they interact with others. About 35 percent are diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome or autism. Others may have auditory processing or language disorders or more.
Such disorders can make it tough for the students to break into the job force, not because they can't do the work, but because they may not know how to interview or how to act appropriately in an office. Social anxieties can make them come off as rude or aloof, said Erin Floyd, a Pepin teacher and job coach.
The transitional program bridges the gap between their schooling and first full-time job. Floyd works with the students at their job site, helping them learn the skills they need at the workplace and also how to handle daily life in an office. Without that real-world experience, they won't have a good shot at getting permanent work, she said.
Scolaro said the new partnerships downtown will allow the school to accept 20 to 30 more students, on top of the 70 already enrolled. In addition to the Tampa sites, Pepin students also work at Publix, CVS and Moffitt Cancer Center, among other locations. The goal is for the students to move through as many workplaces as they can while enrolled in the transitional program, Scolaro said, so they can explore different skills.
Holt, public defender for the county's 13th Judicial Circuit, advocated for the expansion, talking to colleagues downtown about the benefits of the program. Her office first got involved with Pepin in 2007, and Holt said she feels a personal connection to the students.
"We take for granted a working environment," Holt said. "The kids appreciate it on a daily basis."
The current group is helping the office scan in and categorize old files to move to a paperless system. Floyd, who helped teach them what to do and monitors their progress, said the precise work fits the students well.
Many are what she calls "exacting" students and easily spot mistakes. That makes them particularly good at data entry, Floyd said, and maybe even better than someone without their type of learning disability.
"Our kids are so focused on being right, they often do a better job," she said.
Peter Messano, 19, scanned in subpoenas on a recent morning this month. He sat in his cubicle, a "public defender" lanyard hanging over his Pepin golf shirt, and toggled between two computer systems to pull up the records and make sure they were accurate.
He likes the job, he said.
"The best part is I get to work with some very nice people," Messano said.
The employees enjoy the students, too, said Nancy Simpson, the intake supervisor for support at the public defender's office. Interacting with the students is the best part of her day. She likes to see their technical skills, such as keyboarding, improve and how their confidence increases as they master tasks.
Their attitudes are contagious, she said.
"They're such a positive influence on us," she said, "because they're so happy to be here."
Reach Courtney Cairns Pastor at [email protected]