Students who access special education services often are rewarded for effort, but at Project Search, they are rewarded for accuracy and production, says Aaron Kagan, a teacher with Spokane Public Schools.
At Project Search, students work as interns in real-world, entry-level positions in which they are a part of a team, and their work and the value they bring to the workplace is integral, he says.
Kagan stresses the importance of believing in his students’ capabilities instead of placing them in made up or inauthentic positions that aren’t challenging enough or may not hold real value to a team or business.
“(Students) lose some of that intrinsic motivator when they know it’s made up, or when they know it’s a special ed job, and it will be here tomorrow. Not when you walk in here, not when you’re wearing this badge. It’s important, and you need to do it, and we believe that you can do it,” Kagan says.
In its 14th year, Project Search is an internship program designed for high school seniors with intellectual and developmental disabilities who have moderate to high independent-work and daily-living skills. The program is designed to help those students gain work experience that can prepare them for success in real world employment.
Patrick Jones, the executive director of the Institute for Public Policy and Economics Analysis at Eastern Washington University, wrote a piece for the Journal earlier this year in which he said one of Spokane economy’s most pressing issues is the supply of workers. He listed a number of ways to increase the overall labor participation rate, including getting more people with intellectual and developmental disabilities into the labor pool. That population can help bridge the gap between the local demand for more workers and the supply of workers, Jones contended.
According to a 2021 Census estimate, one in seven residents in Spokane County claim a disability, in contrast to the national average of one in nine, Jones reported. By 2030, Spokane County will be home to an estimated 50,000 people with a disability between the ages 18 to 64.
With Project Search, participating students from the school district meet at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, at 101 W. Eighth, and work as interns in administrative, food handling, hospitality, and materials handling, among other positions. In the last several years, the program has expanded to include internship positions at Providence Holy Family Hospital, and Providence St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Medical Center, says Kagan.
Spokane-based Skils’kin, a nonprofit that assists adults with disabilities in gaining jobs, has been a partner of Project Search since the start, says Toby Broemmeling, Skils’kin’s vice president of state programs.
“We build up their work readiness skills all year long with the outcome goal of them achieving employment when they graduate,” says Broemmeling. “Our goal is to have 80% of our students employed, and for the last two years, we’ve hit those goals.”
In September, Skils’kin launched a second site in partnership with Central Valley School District and MultiCare Valley Hospital. Currently in a pilot phase, intern students are filling similar positions as those at Providence, while the administrative staff is being prepared for the program.
“Most of the time (employers) find that they actually have an employee who is really excited to be here and really brings up the morale of the entire department,” he says. “I think they see a lot more value than hindrance when a student comes in.”
Project Search was established in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, in Ohio, to employ more people with disabilities and fill some of the high-turnover, entry-level positions in the emergency department. Since then, the program has grown to an international network of sites with a focus on securing competitive employment for people with disabilities.
In Spokane, Project Search was launched in 2009 and accepts up to 12 students with an individualized education plan per school year, says Kagan.
Individualized education plans are for students with certain cognitive or learning disabilities. Such plans tailor education through modifications and adaptations, says Kagan. Students with an IEP aren’t required to graduate from high school at 18 and are able to stay in the program until they are 21, he adds.
The program, which is under the volunteer services division at Providence, provides three trainers that assist and observe students throughout the school year. The program is funded by the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, under the umbrella of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Kagan and the trainers are employed through Spokane Public Schools. Skils’kin transitions students into positions in the community.
Students work 16 to 20 hours per week, Monday to Thursday, says Kagan. On Fridays, the group participates in community-based instruction in which they take tours of businesses and meet with business mentors that share advice with the students, attend hiring events, or simply do fun activities to connect with the students.
What is great about the hospital system is that it’s like its own city with various opportunities, says Kagan. Students have trained in food prep, sterile processing, warehousing, environmental services, the oncology department, and the neonatal intensive care unit.
“We try to do all entry-level positions,” he says. “We don’t want anything carved out or anything special. We just want to come in and assume a role as if we were employed and work as is.”
There is a common misconception that people with disabilities are unable to do the same tasks as others, says Kagan. Often, students need a longer period of training and repetition to strengthen their retention and recall skills, he says.
For example, a student applying for a position at a Target retail store with only three days of training isn’t going to be ready, but through Project Search, over a period of six months, that same student is prepared to take on that role, he says.
“Primarily in our program, our students’ capabilities are pretty typical and meet expectations,” Kagan says. “It’s just the amount of time to get them there. (Employers) cannot afford to pay $18 an hour for several months to get a student to standard, but that’s what makes my program so great. We can do it, and we can work in partnership.”
Project Search is intended to provide a transition into adult life in general, as well as employment specifically. Since most students will work part time, Kagan helps students tap into their interests, whether it’s joining a golf or basketball league, or the Special Olympics.
Skils’kin’s Broemmeling says the organization has noticed a growing need to increase the participation rate for people with disabilities in the workforce. Reaching students with disabilities as early as possible is an important step in motivating the population, he says.
“What we really appreciate about Project Search is it has a major focus on outcomes,” says Broemmeling. “For every one of our students, our goal is that by the time they graduate, they have a job.”
Skils’kin meets with students throughout the year, observes them at work, and helps identify their interests. Once a student is placed in a position, the organization will assist with onboarding and coaching for about the first 90 days, he says.
The agency works in partnership with the Developmental Disabilities Association—one arm of DSHS—and is able to provide services to students for most of their lives, he says.
“Our clients are just like anybody else with dreams and aspirations, and maybe their initial goal is not to be a housekeeper at a hotel, but maybe move up into a supervisory role,” he says. “We restart that whole process of helping them develop new skills.”
Skils’kin has placed students in jobs at restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, retirement communities, dog washing and grooming businesses, and warehouses, among others.
Interviewing skills are practiced yearlong in stages, says Kagan. After the Christmas break, he will begin recording students’ interviews, a process called self-modeling, in which students can see themselves, receive feedback, and improve their interviewing skills. The program also works in collaboration with the Student Success & Workforce Transitions program at Spokane Community College.
Kagan says his dream is for the business community to be aware of the Project Search interns and to consider them for their entry-level positions.
“We have 12 awesome adults,” he says. “We’re Spokane first, I would love for the Spokane business community to have first pick. Come meet our guys, come interview all of them.”
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