Project Career Launch participants Kayla Galanaugh (left) and Alani Connelly (right) are currently interning at the Penn Museum and taking life skills courses at the Drexel campus. (Elizabeth DeOrnellas for Billy Penn)

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The Philadelphia School District has four off-site programs that help students with special needs find employment after graduation. Enrollment is limited, but everyone who participates wishes more people could take advantage.

Kayla Galanaugh is one of the students who did take advantage. She’s now thriving as an intern at Penn Museum — though she almost missed her chance.

It wasn’t until a week before the deadline that her mother, Karen Galanaugh, heard about the program. As a student on the autism spectrum, Kayla had been happy at Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush High School, Karen told Billy Penn, but neither of them had been sure what would happen when she finished her senior year.

“This is the biggest gray area — what to do with a child on the spectrum after graduation,” Karen Galanaugh said.

Then Benjamin Rush’s principal gave them the tip about Project Career Launch, which provides life skills courses and internships for former highschoolers. It’s one of the programs for young adults who’ve finished secondary school coursework but need support as they transition into the labor market. (The School District of Philadelphia provides services for special needs students through age 21.)

Including Kayla, the off-site programs providing a bridge from student life to working life had just 42 total participants this academic year. 

That’s a fraction of the total number of special needs students who graduate each year from Philadelphia public schools. About 15% of the city’s student body qualified for special education services in 2018, just under 19,500 kids. Of those, around 2,900 (15%) were on the autism spectrum, and 2,300 (12%) had an intellectual disability. 

The off-site programs only receive an average of 120 applications a year. Staff members believe demand for the internship programs would be higher if they were better publicized. 

“This is something that I feel the superintendent, our current superintendent, needs to be more made aware of — that these programs are out there and that a lot of parents really want these programs,” said Cynthia Santiago, an instructor with Philadelphia’s Project SEARCH, which is based on a national model. 

How does it work? Instructors set up workplaces where the graduates act as interns and practice responsibilities, learn how to handle everyday interactions, and fulfill essential duties. 

Project SEARCH participant Nasiyah Davis works at school district headquarters three days a week, helping to organize clothing donations and learning data entry skills. Two days a week she interns at a nearby restaurant — a step toward one day maybe opening her own place. 

“Whatever comes along the way I’m willing to do it,” Davis told Billy Penn. “Instead of owning my own bakery, something for me to get to that point. I’m willing to work.”

Nasiyah Davis helps organize career wardrobe donations as part of her Project SEARCH internship at the school district’s Education Administration building. (Elizabeth DeOrnellas for Billy Penn)

Fellow Project SEARCH intern Kari Batchelor has been working in the district’s print shop, learning to make posters and replace diplomas. Batchelor said he’d like to continue to work there after his internship is done, calling “the people that’s around me” the best part of his job.

George Washington High School graduate Alani Connelly leveraged her internship with Project Career Launch into a food service job at St. Joseph’s University. The program, she said, allowed her to “experience things I really needed to experience.” 

Bringing life-skills training into the school building

The Philly School District’s special needs off-site internship programs are largely successful, said Jane Cordero. A 32-year district staff member, she’s currently transition coordinator for the special education department at Hill-Freedman World Academy, a school in Germantown that exemplifies how these partnerships can excel.  

As of December, 70% of last year’s districtwide intern class had found employment, according to Cordero, who said that prior to the pandemic, the program achieved 100% job placement.  

Getting interns out of a school environment “really propels the growth in the student,” Cordero told Billy Penn. “The goal is marketable skills.”

For the past seven years, Cordero has been working to build the off-site programs that host these internships. 

There’s also a component that happens within the high school itself, and teachers from across the district are now working with Cordero to ensure their special education curriculum includes real-world skills such as how to write a check, how to take public transportation, and how to use a timecard.

Wendy Warfield’s School to Work class delivers fresh flowers to Hill-Freedman World Academy staff every two weeks. (Elizabeth DeOrnellas for Billy Penn)

Of Hill-Freedman’s 650 or so students, 27% qualify for special education services. The school offers 10 different autism support, life skills, and learning support classes, as well as two autism support and one life skills class for post-high-school students.

Michael Roller teaches one of those school-to-work classes for 18 to 21-year-olds on the autism spectrum. Noting that the district has begun to provide more specialized professional development to assist teachers like him, he said it’s becoming common to run into similar classes from other schools when he takes his students to volunteer at places like soup kitchens and clothing warehouses.

And the Hill-Freedman building itself provides a wealth of skills training opportunities for students, from maintenance tasks to helping with charity drives, Roller said.

“I don’t have to worry about sending them on independent skills that they’re gonna fail on sometimes, because the rest of the community comes and steps forward and watches out for them,” Roller said. 

The school is a unique amalgam: Its “world academy” name references the fact that it offers the academically advanced International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum. 

Hill-Freedman Principal Anthony Majewski has worked to reduce the feeling that the school is segregated, explaining, “That is something we’ve tried to erase over time.” 

He described moving classrooms so the students with special needs wouldn’t be isolated in one particular hallway. Students with special needs now eat in the cafeteria, and participate in electives courses with the IB students. Meanwhile, many IB students participate in programs like Best Buddies or Special Olympics or find other opportunities to complete their required service hours through assisting the special education department. 

 “It’s not two schools,” Majewski said. “It’s one school.”

Sarah Wass helps a student in her high school Life Skills Support class at Hill-Freedman add vanilla to their cookie mixture. (Elizabeth DeOrnellas for Billy Penn)

Gaining confidence and having fun

Kayla Galanaugh’s world has expanded greatly since enrolling in Project Career Launch. 

Over the summer, skills trainers from Community Integrated Services guided her and other program participants through travel training to ensure they could navigate public transportation, and she now uses regional rail to travel from her home in Northeast Philadelphia to Drexel.

Said her mother, Karen Galanaugh: “That was a big cord I had to cut.” 

During her time interning at Penn Museum, Kayla said she became a confident enough traveler that she was able to start visiting the museum with friends during her off-hours. 

“I like that I’m socializing with more people,” Kayla said. 

Meanwhile, Karen is thrilled, and just wishes more people knew about the opportunity. “I just feel like every graduating parent should know about this, maybe like in junior year.”

The off-site program’s collaborative partnerships include:

  • The Office of Specialized Services and Hill-Freedman World Academy 
  • Drexel University’s AJ Drexel Autism Institute (through Transition Pathways and Drexel Business Inclusion Center)
  • Community College of Philadelphia – Division of Access and Community Engagement
  • Office of Vocational Rehabilitation Philadelphia (OVR)
  • Philadelphia Intellectual disAbility Services (IDS)
  • Community Integrated Services (CIS)

Interested parents and guardians can find out more about the off-site programs here.

This story is part of a yearlong reporting project with Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting on educational disparities within the Philadelphia School District.