Keshawn Thomas, a Black man wearing glasses, applying paint to a wooden board while on the job

Brad Hopke & Keshawn Thomas

Program Spotlight:

In fall 2021, a diverse group gathered in Collinsville, Illinois to discuss an idea: to build a program that would place high school seniors with disabilities in Registered Apprenticeships. The group wove together multiple partners to provide support:

In a matter of months, the collaboration began serving its first cohort of apprenticeship candidates.

Notably, there was no separate grant to develop this program; instead, stakeholders braided funds. Secondary Transition Experience Program (STEP) educators wrote and taught the curriculum. The STEP Program receives funding and support from the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) for successful program outcomes. The Regional Office of Education is the liaison between the STEP Program and DRS and assists with outcomes and referrals to adult services. Madison County ETA’s On-the-Job Training program subsidized half of the wages. As the employer/apprenticeship sponsor, the City of Collinsville worked with all stakeholders to develop orientation handbooks. Together, they also built customized strategies for each apprentice.

The students in the cohort worked hard to prepare for success. During their junior year of high school, the students in the STEP program, through the Illinois DRS, explored various available apprenticeship options. These opportunities related to events support, housekeeping, and landscaping. Starting in the spring, students toured each apprenticeship track. At the end of the school year, they applied and interviewed for the apprenticeship of their choice. At the start of their senior year, they began the City of Collinsville Registered Apprenticeship program, which lasted one year. Students earned pay from day one, starting at minimum wage with incremental increases as they achieved specific competencies.

At the start of their apprenticeships, students received high levels of support that gradually decreased as they gained experience and mastered new skills. Family involvement was vital, and monthly meetings with all stakeholders helped the program grow along with the students. The training also equipped the frontline staff who worked alongside each apprentice to serve as natural supports and mentors. At the end of each apprenticeship cohort, the team selected one staff member as “Mentor of the Year” to receive an award alongside the apprentices receiving their certificates.

So far, out of 10 student apprentices, five students completed the apprenticeship and received an employment offer from the City of Collinsville. Today, two are not only employed by the City of Collinsville but also enrolled in post-secondary education. The program is now on its third cohort. In addition, the partners behind the program recently expanded their efforts with additional school districts, employers, and Registered Apprenticeship programs.

Participant Spotlight:

After completing his apprenticeship for the City of Collinsville’s Parks and Recreation Department, Brad Hopke continues to work as an employee of the city while also attending welding school. For both endeavors, he receives support from Illinois DRS and the Madison County ETA. Darlene Ladd, with the Madison County ETA, shared that her office will continue to support Brad on his career path as an adult, and that her office is currently talking with a local employer about bringing Brad on as a welding apprentice.

Keshawn Thomas was the first person to complete the apprenticeship program. Upon completion, he was offered a landscaping position with the City of Collinsville’s Parks and Recreation Department at the same starting pay as all other employees ($16 per hour). He paved the way for the program’s success and his own. Now, there are five students who have successfully graduated from the apprenticeship program, and each has received an employment offer from the City of Collinsville.

For more success stories, visit the LEAD Center’s new webpage, Employment Success Stories.