Getting ready for a working future

System to return funds to work program for disabled

July 06, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

They are picking up trash, cleaning bathrooms and distributing lunches, milk and juice to preschool children.

To 13 East Baltimore high school students with developmental disabilities, these summer jobs present a significant opportunity. They're learning how to use a paratransit service, earning minimum-wage paychecks, and gaining experience and connections in the working world they will enter when they turn 21.

But the students, most of whom have mental retardation or brain damage, need on-the-job supervision from teachers and aides. And in recent weeks, their jobs have been in jeopardy because there was no money from the city school system to pay for that supervision.

Now, two weeks into the program and after a protest by parents, staff and students, the system has conceded to pay the salaries of the supervisors.

In the interim, a teacher, an aide, a mother and a grandmother have been volunteering to watch the students at their jobs. Late yesterday afternoon, a school system spokeswoman said the system will give the program money to operate.

"It is being resolved," said spokeswoman Edie House. She could not say how much money the system will provide, but she said details will be worked out at an administrative meeting today. The program's operator said she needs $15,000 to pay for four supervisors at two locations.

Parents and teachers said last night that they will wait to breathe a sigh of relief until details are finalized, but they are frustrated that the students -17 to 21 years old - have had to experience uncertainty. They were preparing to tell the students they could not continue in their jobs beyond this week because the volunteer supervision cannot be sustained.

"It's ridiculous," said the volunteering grandmother, Gertrude Jones, whose grandson is mentally retarded and has cerebral palsy. "Why should these kids have to be subjected to this? They can't be on their own. They have to have somebody to supervise."

Twelve of the 13 students in the job program attend the Claremont School, which serves about 70 severely disabled high school students. (One boy is mainstreamed at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School.) Claremont students do not earn regular high school diplomas, but they are expected to leave school at age 21 prepared to enter the workforce.

For the past 13 years, Claremont teacher Nancy Malone has organized a summer work program for her students. At first, it was federally funded. But for the past several years, Malone said, the students' wages have been paid by YouthWorks, the city's annual summer jobs program. The school system has paid the teachers and aides. Johns Hopkins Medicine provides the work opportunities.

The students work for 30 hours a week at $6.15 an hour, the minimum in Maryland.

Malone, who has been working without pay the past two weeks, said she has to fight for the school system's funding every few years, but "we have never known last-minute like this. This is crazy."

"If we have a program that works," she said, "why do we have such a hard time finding funding?"

Malone said she learned in February that the system would provide $8,000 this summer, enough for one teacher and one aide. She said that she repeatedly revised her proposal to the system to get more money but was told in the second week in June that she wouldn't get any funding at all.

At a June 27 school board meeting where students, parents and staff turned out to protest, outgoing schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland said the issue would be resolved by the next day. Having heard nothing since, parents and teachers have been trying to get the attention of politicians and the media.

If the program receives just $8,000, all 13 students will have to work at the same job site, Hopkins' Martin Luther King Jr. Early Head Start Program, a daycare center. Funding for additional staff would be necessary for four students to accept jobs they've been offered in the linen services department at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The hospital jobs are more likely to lead to full-time employment later on. Ten alumni of the summer program have been hired to work in the hospital's linen, food service and housekeeping departments. But even if the system fully funds the program, Malone said, she will quickly need to find two more aides, because two of those who were supposed to supervise the students this summer have already found other work.

While volunteers have supervised them, all the students have been working at the day care center. (The director of the center, Maureen Hussey, would not allow a reporter and photographer to observe the students at their jobs yesterday.)

Lisa Shubow, a Claremont teacher who worked in the summer program last year, said she saw students improve their social skills and learn good work habits such as arriving on time. "They're extremely hard-working," she said. "They're the kind of kids who want to please."

Kirk J. Dower, 18, said he is excited to be earning a paycheck this summer to spend on "clothes and sometimes food." If he loses his job, he said, "I gonna go crazy."

Two girls in the program are learning to assist the preschool teachers. The mother of one of them, Evelyn Alston, said she transferred her daughter Christina, 17, to Claremont last year because of its workforce preparation opportunities.

"It's really good for her self-esteem," said Alston, who has had to find child care for a younger son this week to volunteer to supervise Christina at work. "It's important for her to get the skills she needs in the work world so when she's 21, she can be independent."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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