Philadelphia School District: Project Search Program Aims to Teach Vocational Skills to Interns with Developmental Disabilities

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) — As he sits surrounded by stacks of laptops, Andre Thach, 21, works quietly and methodically, removing screens from broken laptops one by one.

Even though the pile of laptops seems endless, Thach isn’t stressed about the task ahead.

“I like working with computers,” he said. “I feel good.”

Thach learned to work with laptops during his internship in the IT department at the Philadelphia School District headquarters in Spring Garden.

Dismantling laptops is how Thach will organize his career.

“I would like to work,” said Thach, who has special needs.

Her internship opportunity is part of Project Search, an international program that teaches job skills to students with intellectual disabilities.

The Philadelphia School District is one of two places in Philadelphia to host the program.

Drexel University is home to the other program, with a particular focus on people with autism. April is Autism Acceptance Month.

“It offers them the opportunity to learn professional skills by allowing them to participate in internship sites,” said Cynthia Santiago, trainer at Project Search.

Participants in the school district program are students ages 18 to 21 who have graduated from Philadelphia public schools but need extra help preparing to join the workforce.

A number of participants are also on the autism spectrum. It requires a unique type of labor preparation.

“We do a lot of soft skills that our interns can often get fired for,” Santiago said.

Examples, he says, would be interns learning how to politely step into a conversation to speak with their boss or enter a colleague’s office appropriately.

These types of soft skills relating to others are important to teach in Project Search.

“(We teach them) how to interact with management. How to follow a chain of command,” said Danjuma Sellers-Genrette of Community Integrated Services, a Project Search partner. “Things that seem like second nature to most people, but things that often need to be taught to some of our trainees.”

There are things Sarah McStay, 19, has learned since starting the 30-week program last fall.

“Even if I need help, I can go to my boss,” she said, standing next to her cubicle, who wears a handwritten blue and pink highlighter pointing to the desk as the his.

McStay’s internship is also at school district headquarters.

But the program also offers internships outside of the building at Philadelphia companies.

“We have South which is a restaurant,” Santiago said. “We have Stockyard, which is another restaurant. We have CVS.”

There are 15 internal sites in total. The school district partners with the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, Community Integrated Services, and the State Office of Intellectual Disability Services to run Project Search.

Program participants are often referred by administrators as guidance counselors in their high schools.

Participants are then matched with an internship that matches their needs, interests and abilities. Once they complete the 30-week program, the requirement is that they get paid jobs for at least 90 days.

“Not only do they meet expectations, they often exceed expectations,” Santiago said.

The idea of ​​Project Search is not just to teach job skills, but to give students with special needs the chance to be independent and prove themselves capable.

“They mean well,” Sellers-Genrette said. “They’re fed up with people underestimating them.”

Copyright © 2022 WPVI-TV. All rights reserved.