Alexandria has been selected to participate in a federally funded pilot program to help mentally retarded students find jobs.

The program was announced at a meeting Tuesday night of the Alexandria School Board's Special Education Advisory Committee. Designed to ease mentally retarded students' transition from school to work, the program is a cooperative effort of Virginia Commonwealth University and Alexandria's public schools.

VCU and the school systems in Richmond and Virginia Beach are operating similar programs. Total funding for programs in the three jurisdictions is $350,000.

Robert Bullock, a member of the advisory committee, said now that "we can get a kid through school," employment is the next step.

This project is the "first look at the transition issue," said project director Wendy Wood-Pietruski. Its goal is to help the retarded person find and keep a job before leaving school, she said.

The Special Education Certificate the student receives from a school "doesn't say much" to a prospective employer, Wood-Pietruski said. This project aims to give retarded persons work experience, "important to their futures as adults," she said.

Two job coordinators will work with the Alexandria students selected for the program, according to Harold Burke, Alexandria's director of special education. The coordinators will match students to jobs and assist them in learning the tasks and behaviors appropriate to the job.

The coordinators will go with the students to the job site until the student is able to perform the job without assistance, Burke said. If the student experiences difficulty after the initial training period, the coordinator will return to the job site to provide additional assistance.

This intensive training and supervision represents a vast improvement over the current "place and pray" system, Burke said.

One coordinator position will be funded by the grant, the other by the school system. The program will assist four to six students per year, according to Constance Ford, one of Alexandria's two coordinators. Three persons have already been selected to participate, Ford said, and names are still being taken.

Ford said the students will be placed in "any kind of competitive job" they have the skills to perform. The positions mostly will be entry level, and will include food service, janitorial and clerical work.

The program was conceived at VCU's Rehabilitation Research Training Center by Dr. Paul Wehman, a professor at VCU who has been working to provide employment opportunities to mentally retarded persons since 1978, according to Wood-Pietruski.

Wehman, who had previously received a grant for the training center, received a three-year grant from the federal Department of Education for this demonstration project.

Wood-Pietruski said the program is another step toward the important educational goal of community integration and gainful employment for the mentally retarded.

"Any program that trains people who are difficult to place is a good thing," said School Board Chairman Lou Cook.

Ford said she is "excited" at the possibilities the program offers the mentally retarded. "I don't think we'll be disappointed. We have super kids to work with."