An acute care facility in Medford is serving as the real-world classroom for seven Suffolk County high school seniors with developmental disabilities -- the first immersion internship program of its kind on Long Island.
Students enrolled in Project SEARCH at Eastern Suffolk BOCES will learn job skills such as clerical work, housekeeping, maintenance and doing laundry at Medford Multicare Center. They will spend the academic year in training with the hope of finding a job and gaining independence upon graduation.
"Employment equals independence, and independence creates a life for individuals with disabilities," said David Fielding, Medford Multicare Center's head administrator.
Eastern Suffolk BOCES launched the pilot program in September, and the students just finished their first week at work on Friday. They are assigned to specific areas under the supervision of teachers, job coaches and employee-mentors, and they rotate among work areas every 10 weeks.
The students will graduate in June. New York State provides special education for students until age 21.
Student Tyler Longman, 20, of Medford, is working in the kitchen of the facility, which has more than 300 beds. "I like working here," he said.
Zabhia Khan, 20, of Mount Sinai, is working at the nurse's concierge desk, doing clerical tasks.
"I'm learning new things," she said, adding that her day is "very different" than when she was in the classroom.
The seven students previously attended classes at Eastern Suffolk BOCES' Islip Career Center. After they graduate in June, another group of students from the career center will enter the Project SEARCH program next fall.
Educators said they hope the program expands through partnerships with other businesses and more students can participate.
Project SEARCH was developed at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in 1996. Since its inception, it has grown from the single site to more than 200 locations across the United States and Canada, England, Scotland and Australia. The program's main objective is to secure competitive employment for people with disabilities, according to its national website.
Eastern Suffolk BOCES was awarded a U.S. Department of Labor grant to launch the Project SEARCH program. The grant, which provides curriculum and technical assistance but no funding, was administered through the University of Rochester and modeled after the program there.
More than 80 percent of the students who complete the Rochester program are employed, compared with a national employment rate of about 18 percent for students with developmental disabilities, according to Lynn Russo, transition specialist with Eastern Suffolk BOCES.
Administrators at Medford Multicare Center, which has employed a graduate from the Islip Career Center, agreed to partner with the program. Project SEARCH also incorporates the nonprofit Suffolk County Independent Living Organization, which will help the students transition after graduation.
Each day, the students, supervised by teachers and mentors, have an hour of classroom time at the multicare center and then work in their specialized areas for the rest of the day. They are responsible for arranging their own public transportation to get to the facility.
"They are going to have gainful employment, and they are expected to do exactly the same as any other employee," said Linda Niosi, a special education teacher with Eastern Suffolk BOCES. "October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and the quote is, 'Because we are equal to the task.' "