Making History for Students with Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (far right) listens as (from left) Shandale Brown, Vander Cherry, Michele Hines, Ronald Covington, Tyree Jones, Kevin Thornton, Juan Rivera present a poem written by the class at their graduation ceremony, June 15, 2011. (Photo by the U.S. Department of Education)

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

As high school seniors all across the country graduated this week, history was quietly being made in Washington, D.C. at the Department of Education for 23 D.C. public school students with developmental and intellectual disabilities. They, like their peers across the country, were graduating too. They all participated in a program called Project SEARCH. The 15-year-old program now operates in 39 states and four foreign countries, but this is the first year that the federal government has hosted the project in three agencies including the Departments of Education, Labor and Health and Human Services.

The goal of Project SEARCH is to prepare high school seniors with developmental and intellectual disabilities for employment. Instead of attending classes in a regular high school, the participating students reported to work every day in one of the federal agencies. They received vocational training from a special education teacher for part of the day, and then worked as interns in different offices, learning skills that would prepare them for paid employment in the government or private sector. Job coaches who were part of the Project SEARCH team accompanied the students to their assigned offices to teach them the specific job skills needed to fulfill each task.

Unemployment and under-employment rates among young adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities are unacceptably high. Without the opportunity Project SEARCH offers students to develop work skills, gain experience, and find a job, these young people might wait a long time for their first opportunity to earn a living wage.  Or worse, they might not have a chance to enter the job market at all.

The federal government’s experience with Project SEARCH has been so successful that all three agencies will host a new class this coming school year. But what matters most is the change it has brought about in the lives of the students and how it has helped them prepare to meet the challenges of the work world. Some of the students shared their thoughts on their experience in Project SEARCH and what they learned from the program. Shandale Brown said, “I thought the program was going to be hard for me, but because there was a lot of support from the teachers and the job coaches and my supervisors, it turned out to be okay.”

Kevin Thornton shared:

In my job, I’ve liked filing, copying, and delivering mail, and I like that I get to meet people and talk to people all over the building. I’ve been able to ask people questions, both in the classroom and at my job. Learning to ask for help was very hard; I wanted to do things by myself, and I found out that I needed to ask other people to show me what to do.

The words of Vander Cherry express the hope and the promise that Project SEARCH offers to young people with disabilities. He is one of three interns who will be transitioning to competitive integrated employment at the Department of Education.  When asked what graduation meant to him and what’s next, Vander summed it up this way:

Graduation was life-changing for me – I always wanted to walk across the stage and graduate with people striving for the same goal.  And it happened!

I feel we made history – this was the first graduation ceremony held at the Department of Education.  It is amazing how much all of us have grown through the program.  And there in the audience was everyone who has helped us grow…our families, teachers, job coaches, supervisors, mentors and friends.  They all helped us get through the program and get ready for the “real world.”

I am sad to miss seeing my classmates and teacher every day, but I am very excited about my new job.  I will start on Monday at the Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA).  I worked there as an intern for the past three months, but now I’m going to be a real employee.  It’s kind of scary, but I’m really looking forward to it. When I started this program, I wanted to put my heart into it.  When you really put your heart into something – and open up your mouth too – you will get something back.  Now I want to give back to FSA, to do my best, so they will never regret their decision to hire me.  This program has given me a future.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan perhaps summed it all up the best when he told the students, just before they received their certificates from the D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson:

I’m extraordinarily confident in your potential because of what I’ve seen. Your work ethic, your commitment, your willingness to learn and to be team players, have been simply remarkable.  We have been honored to have you with us…Keep working hard, keep growing, and never, ever let anyone tell you what you can’t do!

Rayna Aylward is Project SEARCH coordinator at the Department of Education.