Cheryl McClendon watched this year as one of her exceptional education students at Soddy-Daisy High School gained experience working in an elementary school cafeteria.

The high school student was one of more than a dozen special-needs students at the school to participate in a work-based learning program in which he gained real-life job experience while in school, said McClendon, the work-based coordinator for exceptional education students at Soddy-Daisy High School.

"He helped with things like directing students to the ketchup and helping kids with opening milk cartons," McClendon said. "And a lot of the little guys at the school really started looking up to him like a big brother."

McClendon said the high school student not only gained confidence and social skills during his time working at the cafeteria, but his hard work also may land him a full-time job after graduation.

"The whole work-based program gives [students] exposure to life outside what their families may have ever thought they could do," McClendon said.

The work McClendon does at Soddy-Daisy High is partly funded by an $80,000 grant from the Tennessee Department of Education, which was just renewed for this upcoming school year.

This will be the fourth year the Hamilton County Department of Education received this Individuals with Disabilities Education Act discretionary grant, which funds two full-time job coaches at Soddy-Daisy and Hixson high schools.

The job coaches work throughout the school year to help 11th- and 12th-grade exceptional education students find job placements and offer support and training to the students as they navigate the workplace. This effort is aligned with the school system's priority to improve workforce readiness, and down the road the district hopes to add similar programs to more high schools.

McClendon said she and the job coach at her school work to support the students and help them succeed at their placements, but also are tough to teach them responsibility.

"We treat this like a real job," she said.

Margaret Abernathy, exceptional education director for Hamilton County Schools, said this grant allows the school system to place about 35 students a year in work-based learning between the two schools.

Abernathy said students have been placed at a broad range of organizations like McKamey Animal Hospital, Longhorn Steakhouse, Wal-Mart and Food City.

"We try to get these kids into jobs that match their areas of interest," she said.

The value of work-based learning goes beyond academics, according to Abernathy, as the work experience helps students develop many of the soft skills they need to hold jobs after graduation.

And over the years, Abernathy said she has noticed how the program benefits more than just the students enrolled.

"This does just as much for their parents and the community," she said. "It shows everyone that these kids can contribute positively to society."

Mitzi Delker, exceptional education supervisor for Hamilton County Schools, applied for the grant, and it's encouraging to her to see how it is making a difference in the lives of her students, as they are more likely to be employed beyond graduation.

"It makes a difference in how the kids walk," she said. "They walk more confidently."

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at 423-757-6592 or Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.