MUSCATINE, Iowa–In October of 2019, Muscatine Community School District and UnityPoint Trinity Muscatine Hospital first partnered to offer Project SEARCH, a work preparedness program for students with special needs. Despite interruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, the program successfully graduated its first class of interns and has begun working with its second class of students.
Project SEARCH prepares students for future employment through a combination of classroom and internship experiences. For the length of one school year, project SEARCH participants begin and end their days in the classroom. They use this time to develop workplace readiness skills and to discuss what goes well each day during their internships and what areas they can continue to improve moving forward.
For the remainder of the day, each student works an internship alongside current employees to learn real on-the-job skill sets. Last year, internship sites included the emergency room, environmental services, food and nutrition services, the laboratory, materials management, the medical and surgical floor, medical records, the operating room, and public health. Each student participated in three different internship experiences, each tailored to their specific employment interests.
Project SEARCH also helped each student pursue job placement opportunities at the conclusion of the program. So far, the first graduating class of Project SEARCH has had a high job placement rate, with six of the first seven students finding local jobs at UnityPoint Trinity Muscatine Hospital, Hy-Vee, Respite Care, and Walgreens. One student also chose to pursue additional education by attending Muscatine Community College. As each student embarks on this new stage in their life, Project SEARCH’s leaders will continue to work with them to ensure a successful transition.
This year, Project SEARCH will work with a class of six new interns. In future years, they hope to work with as many as nine students. Though participants in the spring had to move to virtual instruction due to COVID-19 closures, Project SEARCH’s organizers have adapted the program to allow participants to return to the hospital and attend completely in person. Along with practicing safety measures such as frequent handwashing, social distancing, and wearing masks, project SEARCH has chosen not to have students intern at several sites with the highest risk for inadvertently transmitting COVID-19. Additionally, classroom instruction now features discussion of disease prevention strategies to help students stay safe even when not at their internships.
Andy Ward, a special education teacher with Project SEARCH, believes the program has gotten off on the right foot and will continue to help students find successful work well into the future: “I think we have gotten off to a really good start with the Project SEARCH program in Muscatine. We have been able to work with our interns to provide them with the skills, confidence, and resources to obtain competitive community employment. My hope for the future is that we can continue reaching new interns each year, helping them realize and achieve their unique employment and life goals as they move into adulthood. “