This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
LaQuenta Montanez remembers the frustrations of her early days working at the dental office.
A 10th grader with behavioral issues and severe hearing loss, Montanez was there as part of her program at Lincoln High School. Her behavioral difficulties were the result of her frustration in not being able to communicate effectively due to the lack of an amplified telephone to meet her needs.
But with coaching from her teachers about controlling her temper and a special phone provided by the local Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, Montanez was soon on a better path.
It would lead her to Cheyney University and eventually back to the School District of Philadelphia, where she is now a transition coordinator with wide responsibilities in the area of helping students with disabilities move from high school to higher education or competitive employment.
Of her early challenges, she said, simply, “they made me stronger.”
Transition planning is an excruciatingly difficult task, requiring that vocational skills, life skills, academics and counseling be blended into a formula that is different for every individual.
And there are many examples of the system working right, as it did in Montanez’s case.
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District officials cite Hill-Freedman World Academy in East Mount Airy as doing an excellent job of transition planning.
About 150 of the school’s 704 students are in special education.
On a recent morning, Secondary Special Education Coordinator Jane Cordero spoke of the need for her students to master the “soft skills,” including how to interview, how to deal with criticism, interacting with co-workers, and simply emailing the boss that you’ll be late that day.
“You can get fired really quickly if you don’t have the soft skills,” she said.
There is also emphasis on what’s needed away from the workplace.
In the Independent Living Center, students practiced skills such as cooking, cleaning, setting the table, and making beds.
Tasks were broken down into about 10 small component steps. In a section on using a microwave, one part was “closes drawer and puts oven mitts on hands.”
In another room, students were taught self-advocacy by learning to make presentations at their Individualized Education Program conferences.
Mylikai Jackson-Smith’s PowerPoint presentation included not just possible career goals such as the Air Force but also personal goals, including “I want to control myself so I’m not too blunt.”
In a media room, aided by WHYY program partners, students were working on videos. Topics have included, “Good Decisions” and “How to Make Friends.”
Much of the school’s success, Cordero said, involves working with community partners like WHYY for training or part-time supervised job placements.
Jane Cordero. Photo by Paul Jablow
“It’s the partnerships, the collaboration,” she said.
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Cynthia Santiago stood at the whiteboard in a classroom in the School District of Philadelphia headquarters and pretended to lecture one of her students, Julius Southerland, about his “poor job performance.”
Julius turned away, pretending to tune her out and other students laughed at the role-playing exercise.
Santiago is a teacher in Project Search, a pilot program that has gotten excellent reviews despite its small size: Fewer than 20 students at two sites, the District and the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia.
Based where it started in 1996, the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the project seeks to prepare young people with disabilities to obtain competitive employment.
Diane Malley, project director at Drexel, said the key is bringing together all the players needed to ensure positive student outcomes: education, vocational rehabilitation, job coaching, intellectual disabilities services and job placement agencies.
Julius Southerland. Photo by Paul Jablow
While Philadelphia and other local districts may struggle to get everyone on the same page, cooperation is a given at Project Search.
“All the parties have to be in place and willing to work together before they (the project office) will even talk to you,” Malley said.
A recent Project Search “graduate” from the Drexel program, Jamal Pettiway, has been doing general office work since August at Morgan and Akins in Center City, a 17-person branch of a Nashville-based law firm.
“They just knew he’d be a good fit for us,” said office manager Cary Rodriguez. She said that Pettiway, 20, was hired after the managing partner, wanting to hire someone with disabilities, reached out to the program.
“I love it,” Pettiway said. “I’m learning things. I’m learning about computers.”
Abena Osei, director of special education for the Philadelphia School District, said that the District has learned from Project Search and expects the influence of the program to grow.
Cordero, who is on the educational committee at Project Search in addition to her duties at Hill-Freedman, said, “We’re learning to operate outside our silos.”