This article is the first in a series of Project SEARCH articles which will be taking place throughout the school year.
The start of the school year is often an exciting time for many students, families, and staff. However, for those participants in the Project SEARCH High School Transition Program, their level of excitement may be a little bit higher than normal. Project SEARCH is “a one-year, school-to-work program that pools resources from the Office of Rehabilitative Services, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island (BCBSRI), Cranston Public Schools, Perspectives Corporation and the Department of Behavioral Health Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals,” according to a Project SEARCH fact sheet.
According to Michele Simpson, Cranston Public Schools’ Executive Director of Pupil Personnel Services, the school department began their partnership journey with Project SEARCH during the 2015-2016 school year, and funded the program with an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) grant. “We connected with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island through Projet SEARCH, which is a national program, after they had worked with the Providence school department during the 2014-2015 school year,” said Simpson. “The Providence Schools’ partnership is through Miriam Hospital. We jumped on board for the 2015-2016 school year and hired a teacher and a teacher assistant/job coach for the program. Our idea was that we wanted to take our neediest students and provide them with on the job training, an internship, in the hopes that they would be able to have a job after graduation from the program. They would finish grade 12 and do one year of on-the-job training. According to the fact sheet, “the Project SEARCH program provides real life work experience combined with training in employability and independent living skills and helps young adults with disabilities make successful transitions from school to productive adult life with the goal of competitive employment.”
An important factor for the students too, is that participation in the Project SEARCH program is not automatic. The job training and employability skills start right off in applying for the program itself.
“The students must qualify, they have to be chosen for an interview, create a resume and go for their interview,” said Simpson.
Year one of the program was very successful and Simpson shared that some of the first year interns are now employed in the jobs where they interned, one works for the Cranston Public Schools in the copy room and one works for Sodexo. Although the program follows the school calendar, it includes three different 10-week internships during the school year, with a transition period prior to each, regular 30-minute employment conferences to check in with the students several times along the way, and an exit interview at the completion of the internship. The students also present to the Steering Committee, and have the opportunity to come back and speak about their experiences at information sessions for interested students and families.
The job training begins right away during the summer months.
“The students need to be able to get to their jobs independently, so during the summertime they are working out their transportation skills,” said Simpson. “Many take RIPTA and others take the RIDE van. They go in just like a regular work day and their daily schedule is just like that of other employees.”
At the conclusion of each 10-week internship, the students must then update their resumes and begin the application and interview process again for the next position.
This year’s program currently has seven new interns, but has the space for ten, and Simpson would like to see it grow.
“I’m hoping that we can build more knowledge for families, and continue to spread the word about this program,” said Simpson. “The students have the ability to work in many departments, including food service, maintenance, copy rooms, mailrooms, custodial, and conference rooms. The security jobs are some of the most popular jobs. For each job, the students also need to determine what the needed uniform is, and they have to go and buy it. The security jobs are popular because they get to wear the security uniforms.”
The program is very independent, but is also highly supervised, which Simpson feels is one key component to its success, allowing students to gain the needed experiences, but to also have the personal, individualized support they need along the way. Each student is given a district-provided device to use for communication if they do not have a personal cell phone of their own, and the Remind app is used for communication.
A somewhat unexpected benefit to the program has also been realized by those involved at BCBSRI as well, according to Simpson.
“The employees there have become more conscientious. They are realizing what true inclusion is, in all respects,” she said. “They signed and hung up a petition that pledged not to use the ‘R word’ in the building at all. They have included our students in their holiday parties, and they visit the gym together, since all of our students get the same gym membership benefits as the regular employees get. It’s been phenomenal.”
At the end of the school year, the students participate in a Project SEARCH graduation ceremony.
“It’s a wonderful event,” said Simpson. “There are many honored guests and speakers there. The students have already participated in the graduation ceremony from their high schools, but they don’t get their diplomas until they’ve completed their internships after the BCBSRI graduation.”
Currently, this year’s students are working in the classrooms, learning program procedures, working on their resumes and filling out applications for their jobs. Their first rotation will begin on September 24 and last through December 21. Three employment conferences will take place throughout that rotation, one each in October, November and December.
The next Information Night will be held at the BCBSRI building located at 500 Exchange Street, Providence RI, on Thursday, November 8 from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. for families and prospective students wishing to learn more about the Project SEARCH program at BCBSRI. All are welcome to attend.