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A Willenberg student works the counter at Finn’s Bistro. Click to enlarge. (photo: courtesy Willenberg Career and Transition Center)

There is something very special about LAUSD’s Willenberg Career and Transition Center located here in San Pedro. From the colorful murals around campus to the friendly staff who answer the phones, the vibe is pure positivity. The people who work there care deeply, and that energy creates an environment that inspires the 157 students who attend the school. 

“One-third of the staff are family members of students with disabilities,” says Principal Gavin Mirigliani. “It is more than a job for them.” 

“It is a blessing and an honor to work here,” says Assistant Principal Mary Julienne. “The school is part of my family, and my brother and sister attended Willenberg. I dreamed about growing up and working here. We get to know each student with the care we provide. I worked as a teacher for 23 years before becoming the assistant principal.”

Originally opened in the 1950s for students with polio, Willenberg has been many things. For years, it served students with severe disabilities from ages 3-22. The staff would literally watch children grow up at the school. More recently, when students in special education were integrated back into local schools, Willenberg became a center for adults with disabilities ages 18-22. It was discovered that this population was struggling to get employment and diplomas. Willenberg was a response to this issue. The enthusiastic and inspiriting staff teach students how to become independent adults through job training, adulting skills, and learning to ride public transportation. 

Willenberg has partnered with companies in the community that hire students as interns at no cost. The student earns a stipend and valuable job experience as an intern. Staff carefully match students with a job that will be a good fit for them and provide job coaching. Companies can also hire students and receive a tax credit. Students take pride in repetitive tasks like putting the go-backs on the shelves at CVS. 

A new work program at Willenberg is the Blue Technology Lab, where students will be cultivating brine shrimp. Through a partnership with AltaSea and Consistent Sea Inc., students will learn real tools of the trade with hands-on experience. The shrimp are being prepared to sell to local aquariums. 

Current high school students are able to spend part of their day at Willenberg. They get acclimated to the program before they attend the school full-time after graduation. Students in job training classes on campus, like printing, catering, or graphic design, wear uniforms and punch in on a time clock. Students are trained on campus, so they will be more competitive when applying for jobs. Willenberg provides graphic design and printing to the community at competitive prices and makes over 500,000 copies a year for LAUSD.

Part of their vocational programs includes the option for dual enrollment at Harbor College while attending Willenberg. They also have a partnership with Kaiser Permanente called Project SEARCH, a job training program where students work on-site at Kaiser while mastering on-the-job skills in different departments. This program has been a huge success, with 87 percent of students being hired at Kaiser.

“We are enriching students’ lives while they are at the school,” shares Mirigliani. “Before they attended Willenberg, many of our students were unable to participate in leadership in their schools or sports. We have all of that here and more. The students who were once placed in the back bungalows at other schools are superstars at Willenberg.”

Finn’s Bistro, another real-world work program on campus, teaches students food handling, customer service skills, and money management. Students also learn how to garden on-site and sell their plants and other goods from the graphic design department at the local farmers market. Willenberg has a commercial kitchen where students learn to cook and cater events. An apartment is set up at the school, and soft skills like laundry are practiced. Students are encouraged to be more independent and taught how to shop and attend churches and other classes to help them be more connected to the community.

Adaptive physical education is provided with multiple coaches and equipment. Some students who spend the majority of their time in wheelchairs have the opportunity to use a gait trainer, which simulates walking in an upright position. 

If you are interested in hiring a student for your business, outsourcing printing or graphic design, or getting your car detailed by students ($10), please contact the school at (310) 548-1371. spt

photo of san pedro today author Jennifer Marquez

Jennifer Marquez

Jennifer Marquez can be reached at  jennifertmarquez@yahoo.com  and @jenntmqz on Twitter and Instagram.