By Matthew Stewart-The Daily Times
William Blount High School is piloting a one-year internship program for students with disabilities. Blount County Schools has partnered with five organizations — Maryville College, Sertoma Center, Tennessee Department of Education, Tennessee Department of Human Services’ Division of Rehabilitation Services and Tennessee Department of Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities — to offer the Project SEARCH High School Transition Program. It is one of 10 programs, statewide.
Project SEARCH is a business-led, school-to-work program that takes place entirely at the workplace. Its total workplace immersion model facilitates a seamless combination of career exploration, classroom instruction and hands-on training through worksite rotations. Five William Blount high-schoolers who are in their last year were selected by their school’s IEP (Individual Education Program) team to participate. They are overseen by teacher Tammy Hearon and job coaches provided by the Sertoma Center in Knoxville.
Each student is spending one hour each morning in a Fayerweather Hall classroom, then working four hours at an internship site, Hearon said. They return to a classroom setting for the final hour of each school day and work on academics, including functional math and reading skills. Students are interning in Bartlett Hall, Crawford House and the Margaret Ware Dining Room. They are performing tasks that include clerical work, serving in the housekeeping department and washing dishes.
“We’re excited for this opportunity to partner with Maryville College and pilot Project SEARCH in our county,” said Principal Rob Clark. “We’ve heard great things from our students, who are so excited to be here. They’ve told us that they feel like they’re making real contributions to our community.” “I’ve most enjoyed cleaning Maryville College’s buildings,” said intern Cole Taylor, who is assigned to the housekeeping department. “I really like cleaning, especially dusting. It makes me feel good like I’m doing something important and special. I’m excited every morning to come here and work.”
“From an educator’s perspective, I appreciate this opportunity that Maryville College has extended to us,” Hearon said. “They’re learning tasks, meeting people and developing relationships in the community with their peers.” “I’ve most enjoyed meeting different people, other students,” said intern Brittany Campbell, who is alphabetizing documents, sorting mail and stuffing envelopes in Maryville College’s administrative offices. “Everybody has been really nice to me.”
Maryville College students who are studying the “Psychology of Culturally Diverse & Exceptional Children” are working with Project SEARCH interns, said Dr. Ariane Schratter, Maryville College associate professor of psychology. They assist with math and reading instruction. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for the college students to apply what they’re learning in their academic courses, especially related to adapted instruction and techniques for enhancing students’ success, and to build a mentoring relationship,” Schratter said. “Many of the college students engaged in Project SEARCH will soon be pursuing careers in education. This is an excellent opportunity for them to improve their teaching skills while working with students who have unique needs.”
Hearon, who has taught 15 years in a Comprehensive Development Classroom (CDC) setting, praised the program’s scope. “Students are totally immersed in these experiences. I’ve seen a huge improvement in confidence and self-esteem.” She previously taught job skills through community-based learning projects. High-schoolers spent one or two days per week completing tasks at Blount Memorial Hospital, Goodwill Industries and Kroger, which have partnered with the district to provide community-based instruction for students in CDC 1 and CDC 2. “They acquired skills, but it was sometimes difficult for students to transfer those skills,” Hearon said. “They’d bag groceries and wash dishes in our classroom, but they could struggle to see how those tasks related to our trips.”
Heritage High’s CDC 1 and CDC 2 classes are still completing community-based instruction in this manner, said Amanda Vance, Blount County’s special education supervisor. Students are completing on campus, school-based enterprises, such as a snack shack. The district will expand Project SEARCH to Heritage High after this pilot year, Vance said. “We’ve seen a lot of success with our current partners, and we look forward to expanding to additional businesses next year.” Heritage High’s students will benefit equally from these opportunities, Clark said. “Every student needs these types of experiences. It’s one thing to learn something in a classroom. It’s another thing to feel it, see it and live it.”
“Project SEARCH wins the gold medal for transition programs,” Hearon said. “It’s a big step toward full employment.” School officials will begin identifying jobs for interns in February and March, Vance said. They will also start tracking the percentage of students of disabilities who find employment.
“Project SEARCH is a great opportunity for us to increase outcomes, providing internship opportunities that could lead to career opportunities,” Vance said. “We want our students to get a job as soon as they graduate.” In 2014, 17.1 percent of persons with a disability were employed nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Workers with a disability were more likely to be employed part time than those with no disability (33 percent of workers with a disability compared to 18 percent of workers without a disability). Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development wasn’t able to immediately provide comparable state- and county-level data.