Project SEARCH worth bragging about

Linda Madsen
Guest Columnist

It’s always interesting having conversations with members of our community about the services our school district provides. I love seeing the surprised look on their faces when I mention that our school district’s mission is not, in fact, to serve students in kindergarten through grade 12 but to serve students from birth until age 21.

In addition, they are always surprised to learn about the many community partnerships that tend to arise when serving such a large population of students.

I know some superintendents who start to get irritated in having to constantly remind community members – even parents with close relationships with the school district – of these facts. I take an entirely different approach.

These topics give me yet another chance to brag about one of our many great programs – one of the most innovative and exciting of which is Project SEARCH.

This terrific program actually began in the Cincinnati area in 1996 by a director at a local hospital. Erin Riehle was trying to address high turnover rates in certain jobs at her hospital. While recognizing the hospital’s previously-stated commitment to expanding job opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities, Erin decided to combine these two important objectives into a single program, and the first Project SEARCH model program was created.

Project SEARCH now has more than 240 programs in 39 states across the U.S., and more abroad.

Our local partnership with the Fairview Health Clinic and Project SEARCH provides job training for students in our S.T.E.P. Program. These students range from age 18 to 21, and are all challenged with some level of disability. 

Our S.T.E.P. program does an excellent job of providing life-skills and job-skills training to these courageous students, but when combined with Project SEARCH, the students have a direct pipeline into the job market. Project SEARCH gives them the opportunity to work in a real job setting, to develop the skills they need to perform their jobs at a high level and to market themselves in either the public or private sectors.

The program is a one-year internship and is available to students during their last year of high school eligibility. On a daily basis the students work in their internship position around the hospital.  The department supervisor as well as a job coach and/or special education teacher supports the students in their internship rotation. In the afternoon, the students and teaching staff return to the classroom for a one-hour lesson. This classroom time is spent practicing interview skills, creating resumes, developing work skills and problem-solving work needs. 

Students must meet eligibility requirements for Vocational Rehabilitation Services, for County Developmental Disability Case Management Services and they must have appropriate social and communication skills as well as the ability to take direction and change behavior.

For qualifying students, the experience is tremendous. At the Fairview clinic, students are able to train in many job areas such as electronic records, document-handling and scanning records, building and grounds, nutrition and dietary or food service.

The interns are able to acquire competitive, transferable and marketable job skills. They also gain independence, confidence and self-esteem. The students also participate in monthly progress meetings to define and explore their career goal.

It’s not just the students who gain from this program. The benefits to the businesses and organizations who participate are limitless. 

Businesses access a new, diverse talent pool with individuals featuring skills that match current labor needs. Also, the students who work in these businesses often serve as role models for customers, and staff motivation and job expectations have been known to increase as a result of these hard-working students. Businesses have also secured qualified workers to fill entry-level positions that previously had seen high rates of turnover.

I want to thank two leaders who have been critical components to the success of Project SEARCH in our district: Deb Wall and Kelly Lessman.

Deb is currently our district’s special education director and has overseen that department since 2007. She will be retiring at the end of this school year, and her replacement will be Kelly, who has overseen the S.T.E.P. program since 2008, as well as serving as principal of both the Area Learning Center and Central Montessori Elementary School. 

Both of these outstanding administrators have made our participation in Project SEARCH possible, and I would like to wish them both well in their new life paths – Deb in retirement and Kelly as our new special education director.

Linda Madsen, Ph.D., is superintendent of Forest Lake Area Schools.