Making the Grade: Bartow program pairs special needs students, jobs

Internships and on-the-job experience have become critical resume builders for students of all ages. But when those students have special needs, finding a good fit for that experience can be a challenge.

Four years ago, the Bartow County school system launched a program that helps challenged students make the transition from school to work. Through a partnership with local businesses, Project Search offers workshops on interviewing and workplace skills, then places students in positions where they learn practical, real-world skills. The program’s strongest ties have been with the Cartersville Medical Center that provides a classroom and computer lab access to the participants.

“We work with any disability,” explained Kristy Mitchell, Project Search instructor. “We’ve had a student in a wheelchair, some with learning disabilities, others with communication issues. The first year, we had nine students, and next year we will have eight. It’s been such a success story for these young people with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism and learning disabilities.”

To date, a total of 23 students have completed the program. After that first year, all nine of the student interns found employment. Three are now working full-time; others have earned Certified Nursing Assistant certifications. This year, three of the six interns have already been hired.

To join the program, students first are recommended by their high school teachers, then fill out applications, go on interviews at the hospital and take a few basic tests to rate their communication skills and abilities. Once accepted, students head to a classroom at the medical center where they have a full school day that blends work with learning. They attend two-hour classes on topics such as hygiene, appropriate hairstyles and how to greet coworkers. Other sessions focus on putting a resume together and how to answer interview questions. The school district provides transportation and uniforms, and the work the students perform is considered part of their internship.

“For many, this is often their first jobs,” said Mitchell. “The end goal is to get them a job before graduation. We try to look at what jobs are out there and match them to the skills of the students.”

To find jobs where students excel, they rotate through three hospital departments. Phoebe Stieber, the director of occupational medicine, has worked with students since the program began.

“The students support so many roles in the hospital by working throughout the facility,” she said. “They’ve been in plant operations, the cafeteria and surgical services. In occupational medicine, they’ve assembled packets for our health fairs. They also participate in things we do for the staff; they become a part of our family.”

Josh Turner, the center’s sterile processing supervisor, works with students during a four- to six-week rotation. “We start with simple tasks and move them up according to their capabilities,” he said. “I’ve been impressed by the contributions they make and their willingness to learn anything you ask of them. Their positivity changes the culture in my department, where it can be very hectic. Sometimes these students aren’t given a chance, yet they bring a lot to the job, and we can learn from them.”

Other students have had internships in area hotels and businesses. Whatever the work environment, Mitchell says the experiences the students have are invaluable because “you just can’t replicate the real world.”