Durham Public Schools has partnered with four other local institutions to help high school students with learning disabilities find jobs after graduation.
That might be difficult in a struggling economy, but coordinators of the internship program, called Project Search, hope the students will have better chances because they have trained in an immersive, supportive environment for the entire 2011-12 school year at Durham Regional Hospital.
Designed to simulate real work as much as possible, Project Search has allowed the students to head straight to Durham Regional every morning, where they first go to class, then to their internships, where they are supervised by work coaches and hospital staff.
The students also have learned career skills, such as filling out job applications and preparing resumes. When they leave their internships, they will also do exit interviews.
Kristin Bell, executive director of DPS Exceptional Children’s Department, said the program aims to help people with disabilities break out of the pigeonhole of unskilled work .
“They’re getting an education that specifically correlates with the work they’re going to do,” Bell said. “They’re having on-site training by the people who are going to be employing them and supervising them. And they actually have real opportunity for employment, possibly long-term, in an area that could be a career.”
Project Search will graduate its first eight students in June. Although it’s unpaid work, and there is no guarantee of a job after graduation, two of the students already have landed jobs at Durham Regional and Duke University.
Program coordinators are taking applications for about 12 more students for next school year. All Project Search students must complete their high school academic requirements before enrollment.
Project Search required the collaboration of five different local institutions:
• Durham Regional,
• City of Medicine Academy, which provided the teachers, classroom and work space;
• The Durham Center, which initiated the program; and
• Opportunities for Everyone Enterprises, a Hillsborough-based nonprofit that provided the job coaches for students.
For the inaugural class, the students have been working in security, food preparation, the ambulatory care unit, environmental services, mailroom and human resources.
Money for mom
On a recent spring day, Kwmaine Owens, 22, a senior at Hillside High School, walked the hospital parking lot with two classmates and a work coach. The group, training in security, was on the lookout for broken windows, illegally parked cars and other malfeasance.
The sun shined brightly, the air was cool, and Owens was glad to not be cooped up in a classroom. After he graduates, Owens said with a smile, he would like to go into security.
“I’ve wanted to be a cop since I was little,” Owens said. “I can work at Target, Kmart, the police department if I can. I can do paperwork. I just want a job and make some money for my mom.”
According to Katie Galbraith, chief hospital operations and business development officer chief of Durham Regional, and other hospital staff, having students on site has also brightened their work culture.
“It has been impressive,” Galbraith said. “The team here has rallied around the students. I think it has helped form good friendships and work relationships.”
Project Search is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based program founded in 1995. The loosely structured program, now in 206 sites in the U.S. and four other countries, is adapted to the particular needs of each site. Durham is the second in North Carolina, after Mecklenburg County. It was Terry Ames, head of program development at Durham Center, who initiated work on the program here.
A consultant with Project Search came to Durham to help set it up, after which, it has run largely on the five partners’ will and enthusiasm. There is no clear program leader, and the different institutions have had to chip in their own resources, such as teachers’ salaries from DPS and a classroom from Durham Regional. The program’s cost-effectiveness lies in the fact that most of the resources are already paid for, just relocated and centralized at the work site.
Aileen Womark-Montes, the DPS teacher on site, said that for this inaugural year, she and other coordinators carefully assessed and planned each improvement to the program, marking the progress of the students and trying to match work with their interests.
The program has helped boost the students’ confidence and bring them out of their shells, and even Womark-Montes, who has taught students with disabilities at DPS for seven years, has been surprised.
“You can’t make up your mind in advance what a person can or can’t do,” Womark-Montes said. “Even the students themselves don’t know what they’re capable of until they start working.”