This new Bibb schools program puts special needs students to work in community

Parker Perry will tell you frankly that his brain is like The Flash in DC Comics: Fast.

It was sometimes overwhelming in his younger years, but since then, “I learned to meditate and calm down by myself,” the 19-year-old aspiring graphic artist told The Telegraph.

Perry has autism, a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. He is a special needs student at Howard High School.

State law allows special needs students to remain in public schools until their 22nd birthday, but what happens to those students beyond graduation often is unplanned.

Terri McNeely said her grandson, like other students with special needs, had little or no direction until this year.

“It’s just like, ‘You’re done now.’” she said. “So what do you do with them? The only place they were going to put him was going to be in some home somewhere. Who wants to do that?”

On Thursday, Perry grinned as he penned his name on a contract along with nine other students. The agreement was to to work as an intern at Middle Georgia State University this fall. The arrangement is part of project SEARCH, a program new to Bibb schools this year.

During three internships, lasting 10 weeks each, students will work on campus in the mail room, student life, the campus store, the recreation center, library or for Sodexo, the food service company with which the school contracts.

The internship is unpaid but the program offers students an “opportunity to move outside of the classroom and learn real skills on the job,” Lori Harvin, access instructional coach for Bibb schools, said. “We have very little of that.”

All of the eligible students who volunteered to participate in the program have a “desire to work and make money and (they) understand the meaning of it,” Harvin said.

Ryan Green, director of auxiliary services for Middle Georgia State University, said he recently sent an email asking all departments on campus if assistance was needed.

“There’s a lot of interest in it,” Green said. “Everyone is really excited about it.”

The nine-month program involves classroom instruction, skills training and evaluations. Students are expected to learn about important topics such as workplace safety, inventory management, how to use relevant technology and how to write a resume.

Project SEARCH was founded in 1996 at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Bibb is the 601st school district worldwide to adopt the program.

Harvin said the school district is seeking other businesses to partner with for the program.

People who have disabilities were much less likely to be employed than those with no disability, according to 2018 statistics the U.S. Department of Labor published in February.

But when it comes to the employment of Project SEARCH graduates, “outcomes far exceed the national average rate of employment for people with disabilities with a 68% success rate in transitioning students from high school into competitive employment,” according to a 2015 study titled “Longitudinal outcomes of Project SEARCH in upstate New York.”

McNeely is hopeful her grandson will be ready to work.

“I think it’s a good idea,” she said. “I think it will give him confidence to move on.”