Project SEARCH Helps High Schoolers on the Spectrum Prep for the Future

Project SEARCH intern Jameel Caleb

Jameel Caleb, 19, completes tasks while at his Project SEARCH internship placement with Student Life.

It’s early morning in the Project SEARCH training room in MacAlister Hall on Drexel University’s University City campus.

The interns from this year’s Project SEARCH class are completing morning tasks on their respective laptops — all working quietly, stirring only to sharpen pencils or grab tissues.

Then the day’s schedule shifts into the morning meeting. The interns stow their resource binders on a bookshelf and their laptops in a closet. The meeting consists of an exercise in reviewing a hypothetical work schedule, then planning their route, what time they have to wake up and what time they have to leave the house based on their start time. Cynthia Santiago, a special education teacher with the Philadelphia School District who instructs the interns during these training sessions, is always quick to congratulate them on a correct answer or great reasoning.

She explains to the interns that they might land a job following graduation that has the same start time every day, or they might have shifts that start at a variety of different times.

“You’d have to wake up at 4:08 a.m. How do you feel about that? Bad?” she said to one intern based on the hypothetical start time, and he promptly gives her a thumbs down indicating as much.

There’s a variety of soft, professional and social skills which may inhibit individuals on the autism spectrum from holding down a job following their graduation from high school. Developing these skills is a major focus of Project SEARCH. During these training sessions, the interns review everything from creating a résumé to greeting a supervisor to the best ways to ask for help.

“Everything that I teach in the training room is to make the interns as independent as possible,” Santiago said. “I teach a lot of soft skills necessary in a work environment to help them retain a job.”

Project SEARCH was adapted by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel in 2016 as a joint effort between the Hill-Freedman World Academy, the Philadelphia School District, the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services and Community Integrated Services. It takes students on the autism spectrum in their last year of high school out of the traditional public school setting and places them in internship positions throughout the academic year. These internships build job training and increase the likelihood they will enter the work force following graduation.

This is the second cohort to go through the program at Drexel. Santiago said the interns are selected for the year through a rigorous application, assessment and interview process. Following the morning training meetings, the interns then head to their internship placements — with most placements housed within a variety of Drexel departments. Members of this Project SEARCH class are interning everywhere from Parking Services to within the Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship in the Close School of Entrepreneurship.

“The interns are hard workers and really enthusiastic about going to work,” Santiago said.

“The interns are hard workers and really enthusiastic about going to work,” Santiago said.

“He always asks me, ‘How was your weekend?’ He’s always got a smile on his face,” she said. “When he didn’t have work to do, he’d come up and say, ‘I’m out of work, is there something I can do?’ Which is great.”

Edwards helped with the startup of the Project SEARCH program at Drexel in her former research position with the Institute. When she started in her new position with Student Life last year, she told her department they would be getting a Project SEARCH intern.

“At first everybody was like, ‘Well are we going to have time?’” Edwards recalled. “And once they realized it didn’t really take a whole lot of their time and what an asset it was, everybody kind of jumped on board. … I think it’s a great introduction to having people who have never worked with people with disabilities. It’s a stepping stone to say, ‘You know what? These students really are great. They’re helping us with all these other things. Maybe we should talk more about having other people with differences work in our environment.’”

Caleb said there’s nothing he’s disliked about his internship experiences through Project SEARCH, which have also included working at Barnes & Noble, the Baiada Institute and with Parking Services. As he looks toward graduation from Project SEARCH on June 1, Caleb said he hopes to land a job in the future at a United Artists movie theater as a cashier due to both his love of movies and math.

Edwards said Project SEARCH is “the ideal program” for kids like Caleb to help them succeed in beyond high school.

“Knowing what I know about the rates of how many students graduate from high school and don’t go on to do anything — basically fall off the cliff — I think this is a great program that it transitions them into the workforce and also through the different government agencies that can help them along the way,” she said.