When we think of a classroom, or even a school, we often have a pretty clear image in mind. However, when you actually spend time in Alaska’s diverse and varied public schools, that picture will undoubtedly change. In fact, some programs don’t even take place in classrooms or schools at all. One such program in Anchorage, Project SEARCH, takes a different approach to make sure its students are set up for success after graduation.

Joan Hoeler speaks at the 2016 NEA-Alaska Fall Event

Joan Hoeler speaking at Fall Event 2016

Each morning at 8am, teacher and NEA-Alaska member, Joan Hoeler, greets her class to start their day. This group is composed of 18-22 year olds with cognitive disabilities (all participants have an individualized education program or IEP) who meet in the basement floor of Providence Alaska Medical Center (PAMC) for their morning class, which covers a variety of life skills topics like budgeting, team building, and independent living skills. After this forty-five minute class, students head to their internships in various hospital departments.

The school year for Project SEARCH students is a departure from what their school days were like in high school. Students spend four and a half hours a day in one of three rotations that they will work at throughout the year. Internship rotations range from helping in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) to being part of the maintenance crew to working in one of the hospital’s stores.

In it’s 6th year, the Anchorage branch of this international program works with students to teach them soft skills, maturity skills, and technical skills so that they can find permanent work and gain competitive employment after finishing the program and receiving their diploma.

Hoeler explains that Alaska has a high job turnover rate in general, and a low rate of employment for individuals with developmental disabilities.

“A program like Project SEARCH provides employers with opportunities to hire competent employees, with a variety of experiences and good job maturity skills that, in turn, will increase the employment rate for individuals with developmental disabilities,” said Hoeler.

The program begins for students when they apply during the second semester of their last year of school. Hoeler, along with other Project SEARCH job trainers Mari Christoffers (a retired ASD teacher and NEA-Alaska member) and Kimly Sonekhiao from the Arc of Anchorage, actively recruit students from Anchorage high schools and vocational programs to fill the twelve available spots. The application process for students includes getting two letters of reference as well as interviewing with the program’s Business Advisory Committee, a group composed of staff from PAMC, the Anchorage School District, the Arc of Anchorage, and the broader Anchorage business community.

Accepted students then begin in the fall with a few weeks of intensive job preparation: practicing interview skills, workplace cooperation, and resume building. Following these first three weeks, students apply to internships throughout PAMC and are placed in their first two month rotation. In these placements, the students are assigned a mentor: a PAMC employee who works with the student during their job. These mentors and the Project SEARCH staff, create a strong support system for students, who in many cases are working at their first job.

“Some of these people have a natural gift,” said Hoeler of the mentors.

After their internship shift, students then come back to the classroom where Joan leads them through more introspective activities such as journaling about their day or conversing with peers about experiences they had at their internships. These exercises work to cement the lessons students learn in their morning class and practice in the workplace.

“That’s why I like the last half hour of the day,” said Hoeler, who will sometimes prompt students with questions like ‘what are transferable skills you learned today?’. “I think it gives a nice closing.”

While visiting Project SEARCH, Hoeler introduced me to a young man who delivered meals from the PAMC cafeteria to patients’ rooms, and another young man who helped patients in wheelchairs get around the hospital. Another student cleaned toys in the children’s wing and once helped fixed a video game system for a young patient. The child then asked if the student would mind playing the game too. The student said this was one of his best days on the job.

One young woman we met with was working in day surgery, where she sanitizes rooms, organizes stations, and switches out laundry.

“When I was in my first rotation, they wanted to hire me, so I’m applying for a couple college courses for that,” the student said of her last rotation in the NICU.

She’s also greatly appreciated by staff in her new rotation in day surgery.

When students finish their year with Project SEARCH, they are prepared with a resume that features three internship experiences, three recommendations from their mentors, and skills that will serve them in new jobs. During a mock interview session held after the first rotation, students have the opportunity to practice their interview skills with local businesses like NANA and 1st National Bank of Alaska. Staff also sets up opportunities for students to job shadow with businesses like Michael’s, Barnes & Noble security, the Alaska Club, and local hotels.

Project SEARCH, originally developed in Cincinnati, solves two problems at once; it addresses the higher rates of unemployment among adults with developmental disabilities and the high rates of turnover in certain jobs with repetitive tasks.

“People are hesitant to hire someone when they hear the word disability,” said Hoeler. “I think Project SEARCH has tapped into an untapped market for employability.”

In her role as the Project SEARCH teacher, Hoeler has found professional development to be an important resource, such as the Project SEARCH national conference and the international website where educators can chat with one another and share ideas. Here she can ask her peers from around the world for examples of budgeting curriculum or how they structure their school day.

“People that come before you are the best people to learn from,” Hoeler said of her own mentors through the Project SEARCH community.

“It’s much different,” Joan said, comparing her new role at Project SEARCH to her previous job at Whaley School, where she worked with students with behavioral needs. “I never thought I’d be teaching vocational skills, but it’s great!”

While much of her job involves arranging presenters and coordinating with PAMC departments, Hoeler smiled as she shared that some of her favorite moments are when she steps back and lets students engage in conversation and process something new they experienced in their internships, such as witnessing conflict resolution between co-workers. She said it’s notable the maturity that students develop throughout their year with Project SEARCH, in addition to the people and other job skills they gain like sales, stocking, and organization.

“They become models for others that they know,” said Hoeler of the positive impact students in the program have on their personal communities.

Though Project SEARCH may not be traditional, it has become a great asset to both its students and the broader Anchorage community. The teachers and staff are committed to providing their students with the education and life skills they need to live life to its fullest.

Project SEARCH is a collaborative program between the Anchorage School District, Providence Health & Services Alaska, The Arc of Anchorage, and the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education. Other Project SEARCH programs can be found in Fairbanks, the Mat-Su and Soldotna. To learn more about the program nationwide, visit www.projectsearch.us.