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For special-needs kids, post-graduation plans need to hatch in middle school

Adults on the spectrum have far lower rates of employment than their peers with other disabilities.

Hannah Scott, 19, folds T-shirts during her Project SEARCH internship at the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Drexel University's campus.
Hannah Scott, 19, folds T-shirts during her Project SEARCH internship at the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Drexel University's campus.Read moreMIGUEL MARTINEZ / Staff Photographer

Hannah Scott whipped a white Drexel University T-shirt out of a large cardboard box and, with efficiency that would turn the head of organizing expert Marie Kondo, went to work using a green plastic shirt-folder. Within seconds, she added the now wrinkle-free, perfectly-creased garment to a growing pile that was ready to be put on shelves in the Barnes & Noble campus bookstore at Drexel, where she was working.

“Good afternoon,” Scott called out to a student who entered the store. Greeting patrons was also part of her duties, she said, as she added another shirt to the stack.

“I like this job,” said Scott, 19, from West Philadelphia. “I want to keep it the whole school year.”

Scott, who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is one of eight students from Hill-Freeman World Academy, a Philadelphia public school participating in Project SEARCH at Drexel University. It’s a one-year program geared toward providing job training and internships to help high school students on the spectrum transition into the workforce.

In its first year, seven of eight Hill-Freeman participants in Project SEARCH found jobs after leaving high school. In its second year, all 18 Hill-Freeman students did, and are now employed at businesses like Stitch Data, CVS, Fresh Grocer, Best Buy, and the Philadelphia International Airport.

“The connection has been lifesaving for us,” said Jane Cordero, a transition specialist at Hill-Freeman, of her school’s collaboration with Project SEARCH. The experiences gained by students has completely altered their life trajectory, she said.

Federal law allows children with disabilities to attend school until age 21. In the Philadelphia School District, 1,654 students ages 18 to 21 have special needs, including 302 that have ASD and 480 with other intellectual disabilities. All are working on plans for what comes after they leave the district, Cordero said.

But some schools are more up to speed than others.

All schools are following the same Individual with Disability Education Act (IDEA) regulations around transition planning as required, but what that ends up looking like can be very different district to district,” said Diane Malley, project director of Transition Pathways at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. Some have prioritized programs for 18- to 21-year-olds while others have not, she added.

At the Maritime Academy Charter High School, Millie Curley, a special-education teacher and transition coordinator, has seen a dramatic shift in how schools approach students’ postgraduation life. Where once it was acceptable to have a plan on paper, the state now requires schools to include specific details of what was done in the classroom to help the student achieve success in the working world, she said.

“It’s really taking it to the next level,” said Curley, who is also the parent of a special-needs adult son. She now follows up with Maritime Academy graduates for at least three years to monitor their progress and offer guidance, if needed.

Nationally, about one in 59 children in the United States has been identified as having ASD, which is four times more common in boys than girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At age 21, students age out of the educational system that has provided them and their families with the much-needed services on which they have come to rely. But when it comes to transitioning these young adults into jobs or postsecondary education, the outlook can be grim, often leaving families on their own to provide services for their children. The drop-off is so dramatic, parents have referred to it as “falling off the cliff.”

Adults on the spectrum have far lower rates of employment than their peers with other disabilities. About 75% of students and 45% of parents of students with ASD reported they did not participate in transition planning, which should begin no later than age 16, according to the 2018 National Autism Indicators Report from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia companies are changing lives by hiring employees with disabilities

But even students who undergo the most thoughtful training are too often sidelined by ill-informed employers who see only a candidate’s disability, not his or her potential to bring real value to a workplace. It’s time to push the envelope and imagine what a future with full-time employment and full pay would look like, said Malley: “We have to change everyone’s expectations."

In the Abington School District, staffers are working hard to do just that. Five years ago, the district launched its A.C.T.I.V.E. Academy, a transitional program designed for young adults, ages 18 to 21, who have individual education plans (IEPs). The academy utilizes the classroom and community as it teaches students vocational and travel training, and independent living skills.

On one recent weekday, four of the program’s participants bustled about the Holy Redeemer St. Joseph Manor nursing facility as they cleaned, organized, or went room-to-room with a cart to provide books to residents.

“I just like working and having something to do,” said Nathan Staroscik, 19, of Elkins Park, adding that lunch in the cafeteria is his favorite part of the workday. As for the future, he thinks a job cleaning or stocking shelves is something he would enjoy.

“When we place students at work sites, we look at their strengths,” said Kathy Rafter, 51, a special-education teacher at Abington Senior High School, who helped found the five-year-old program. Currently, 26 students are working at about 10 sites around the community, including at CVS, Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health, Moss Rehabilitation at Einstein, and the YMCA, she said.

“There is so much to these young adults transitioning into adulthood,” said Cara Gimbel, 39, a special-education teacher at the high school.

In the district, she explained, the process begins in middle school, where a team that includes teachers and counselors encourages students to begin thinking about career choices and/or postsecondary schooling. The team helps students prepare for independent living by teaching them how to take public transportation, obtain and use a cell phone, and acquire a state identification card, email address, and debit card.

For students heading off to college — some have enrolled in specially designed programs at Temple University and East Stroudsburg University — the school prepares them for independent living by helping to polish their social skills, for example, or making sure their medical needs will be addressed.

Postgraduation, the staff troubleshoots with families if unforeseen barriers arise to a student’s success, providing a kind of bridge to the adult services the former students require.

The Bucks County Intermediate Unit focuses on independent living skills, vocational job skills, or postsecondary education for students from area school districts to make sure they’re successful once they leave the school setting, said Executive Director Mark Hoffman.

“Every young adult has an individualized plan on how to approach those three elements,” Hoffman said. “Our goal is to make sure they have the same kind of opportunity that anyone else would have.”