Family members were asked to hold their applause until the end, but that didn’t stop the tears or shout-outs to the 25 students who crossed the stage at the U.S. Education Department on Wednesday morning to receive their D.C. diplomas.
“You did it!” rang a voice from the audience, speaking for just about everyone.
In a week when seniors across the city are turning their tassels, this celebration was especially sweet and hard-earned. The graduates were developmentally disabled students who spent their last year of high school in Project SEARCH, a work-study program run jointly by D.C. Public Schools and the D.C. Department of Disability Services. Instead of going to class fulltime, they were assigned to a federal agency (either Labor, Health and Human Services or Education), where they learned basic office skills and got a taste of life in a professional setting.
But graduates and their families said the value of the program transcended job training. It showed them, they said, a path out of the shadows.
“It opened me up a lot. I’m a shy guy,” said Michael Francis, 20, who came to SEARCH on the recommendation of his counselor at Anacostia High School. He spent the year at the Administration for Children and Families at HHS. “It just pulled me out of my shell,” he said.
Troy Booker was reluctant to even leave his home in Southeast Washington, said his mother, Denise Booker. One reason was the environment at Coolidge High School, where the 19-year-old was taunted.
“They kept calling me retarded because I was in special ed,” he said.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan addressed the graduates at the department’s Barnard Auditorium, urging them to regard SEARCH as just the beginning.
“Anyone who doubts you, just use that as motivation to go to the next level,” Duncan said.
The District’s SEARCH program is one of 150 similar projects in 39 states and four countries. Students must apply to the program and be accepted by a selection committee.
Francis, Booker and four other students formed a tight cohort at HHS, where they learned scanning, copying and computer skills under the guidance of teachers and coaches. They also received tutorials in how to dress for office work and present themselves to potential employers.
“This was my first time in an office building,” said Brittany Prue, 21, a senior at High Road Academy, a school for students with learning disabilities where she had been placed by the District before coming to SEARCH.
District officials said programs such as SEARCH, which is in its second year, will become increasingly important to the school system’s 2,700 special education students, half of whom are 16 or older. As they “age out” of the system at 22, they’ll need skills to sustain them in the workplace.
Richard Nyankori, the District’s outgoing deputy chancellor for special education, said the transition from school to work “must be a poverty-breaking activity” for students.
“If it’s not, we’re not doing this transition well,” Nyankori said. “Most of our kids with disabilities live in poverty. They are almost destined to a life of poverty if we don’t do something about it.”
Nyankori’s vision was to land SEARCH graduates in entry-level federal agency jobs, where they would in time be eligible for benefits. However, just five of the 25 have jobs — three at HHS and one each at Labor and Education. D.C. schools spokesman Frederick Lewis said the remaining graduates are in “the job development pipeline” and are interviewing.
“Job coaches will continue working with these students over the summer so that they receive continued support in their job searches,” Lewis said.
“I’m hoping and praying,” Francis said.