Special education students embrace work and life skills through vocational training programs

When guests check out of El Capitan Hotel in downtown Merced, a team of students wearing Merced County Office of Education (MCOE) attire enter the rooms to strip the beds, empty the trash bins, and vacuum the floors.

For over a year, students like Alondra Fierros, who always has a smile on her face, have been washing the hotel’s dirty linens, while Jayden Flores has been neatly folding the clean hotel towels into stacks of eight without looking up from the task.

Most of the students, aged 18-22, are diagnosed with varying degrees of autism and/or other disabilities. They are part of the county office’s adult transition program in special education and are learning laundry and cleaning for the first time.

Despite their limitations, the students gain skills through the county office and hotel’s housekeeping program.

“I clean the place, and I take a bunch of dirty bed sheets and towels and put them in the laundry room and wash them,” Flores said about the tasks he learned by observing housekeepers.

Through hands-on experience at the hotel, students acquire skills for the housekeeping and hospitality industry. These skills will be beneficial for their future careers after graduation, whether it be at El Capitan or elsewhere. They also develop life skills for adulthood.

Eliazar removes El Capitan Hotel bedding to be washed, one of his duties in a housekeeping training program through the hotel and Merced County Office of Education. Eliazar is a student in special education in the county office’s adult transition program. The county office didn’t disclose his last name to protect the student’s privacy.
Photo courtesy of Merced County Office of Education

“At this age, we’re really trying to provide them with more experience in the community,” said Laura Fong, an assistant superintendent in the Merced County Office of Education.

Traditionally, vocational training programs have tailored jobs around the needs of special education students. Merced County’s program stands out as it integrates students into the housekeeping career, making it one of the few in California and across the nation to do so. It now serves as a model for other districts aiming to integrate students with disabilities into careers and society.

From model room to real-world experience

The office of education launched the housekeeping training program in October 2022 to provide special education students with real-world work and life skills. Before the program, students practiced their skills in an “isolated” mock hotel room, which was effective for a while. However, they couldn’t apply what they learned to their lives because the skills weren’t being used in a real-world environment. They also lacked the opportunity to observe housekeepers’ work and understand the tasks they