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					                        START ON SUCCESS (SOS)
                           PAID INTERNSHIPS

                                 LESSONS LEARNED

                                      1994 - 2010

By the early 1990s, after four decades in education, I had been involved in many
initiatives to promote racial and ethnic integration. But, I knew little about the world of
disability. So when Alan Reich, my college roommate and the founding President of the
National Organization on Disability (NOD), challenged me to ―do for young people with
disabilities in the ’90s what you were doing for minorities in the ’60s,‖ I hesitated. Alan
was certain there were parallels. I thought him ill-informed. In his inimitable style, he
said, ―Find out.‖

Fifteen years and 3,500 Start on Success graduates have proven him right. Young people
with disabilities face prejudice not unlike those confronted by other minorities in their
efforts to overcome artificially imposed limits. And, minorities with disabilities from
low-income families are multiply disadvantaged.

In deciding how best to respond to Alan’s challenge, I was influenced by three factors.

First was the 1994 Harris Survey (commissioned by NOD), which documented jobs as
the number one priority of Americans with disabilities. That survey also revealed a huge
untapped resource: The 79 percent of non-employed people with disabilities who wanted
to work but were unable to find jobs.

Second, I was influenced by parents who time and again lamented the fact that their sons
and daughters with disabilities did not have access to jobs routinely available to non-
disabled teenagers. They were clear: ―If you do anything, Charley, introduce our students
to the workplace.‖

Third, I heard from Special Education teachers, administrators, and service providers
that there were ever-growing numbers of so-called ―gap‖ kids who, if not successfully

transitioned to the workplace or further education upon leaving high school, were
candidates for isolation, welfare, or the judicial system.

These professionals understood that more must be done to improve school-to-work
transitions for Special Education students. Their message: ―We need fresh ideas, new
approaches … give us the opportunity to do it right.‖

This document is my attempt at relating what we have learned in creating and developing
the SOS project over the course of the past 16 years, and what I have learned from the
talented and dedicated teachers, administrators, and students that have made this project
so successful.

SOS Philosophy
What I learned, and what Start on Success continues to prove, year after year, is that
given early introductory job opportunities and close individual support, young people
with disabilities can be successfully prepared for competitive employment.

When this is done right,

       students find that their abilities are needed in the workplace;

       employers receive new sources of reliable, dedicated workers;

       communities are strengthened as all of their members participate more fully.

Pilot Program Snapshot
The place where all these elements first came together was Philadelphia. There, the
pioneering SOS urban partners were the Philadelphia School District’s Office of
Employment and the University of Pennsylvania’s Office of Community Outreach. With
their authorization, the principal of West Philadelphia’s University City High School
allowed a veteran Special Education teacher and 15 of her students to spend their senior
year at the University of Pennsylvania.

Starting their day in a Penn classroom, with help from Penn students, they focused on
high school academic requirements. In the afternoons, they scattered to paid internships
throughout the university – bookstore, law school admissions office, laundry, mailroom,
computer center, Penn Tower Hotel – where they were mentored by Penn employees.

We knew we were on the right track when one of our university partners commented,
―Instead of trying to impose a rigid SOS structure, you have given us the flexibility to
develop our own learning curve, and that has been a great strength of this program.‖

Their early success guaranteed the SOS future and the healthy variations that followed
from Alabama to Connecticut, from California to New York.

                          LEARNING CURVES
               Lessons and Experiences That Defined Success

Community Selection
A school community contemplating SOS must first be able to demonstrate its need for the
program; SOS has never been replicated in a community that already had similar projects
able to meet the need. Next, all constituencies must be involved in the planning process
— students and parents, teachers and administrators, service providers and employers,
and local officials. Further, we looked for committed secondary school faculty and
administrators and a high level professional expertise. We also needed to know that there
would be supportive community employers willing to test out new approaches for
introducing high school students with disabilities to the world of work.

Finally, responsible implementation requires a reliable point of entry and an identified
and empowered project coordinator. In Alabama, it was a foundation program officer; in
Connecticut, a consultant in the State Department of Education’s Bureau of Special
Education; in Baltimore, a project director in a community based organization; in Los
Angeles, a foundation president; in Pittsburgh, a university dean. Regardless of who
provides the point of entry, good results always depend on commitment and cooperation
from high school administrators and Special Education teachers. Where that was not
available, or where SOS was only tepidly endorsed, prospects were poor for success and
ultimate sustainability.

          Conclusion: Though there is not one right way to launch and
          sustain local SOS programs, the most successful ones, from the
          outset, have the enthusiastic support of the school district.

Local programs must have a clearly identified SOS Leader/Coordinator. So long as there
is early buy-in from the school district, it’s not mandatory that this person be a school
system employee. Exceptions have included staff members from foundations and non-
profit service providers.

Overall, however — and not surprisingly — coordinators appointed from within the
school system are best able to innovate organically, build consensus, and resolve
inevitable glitches.

Depending on program size, the leader/coordinator may have an administrative assistant.

          Conclusion: Make every effort to appoint leader/coordinators
          from within the school district. Go outside only if the chosen
          person and organization has an established relationship with
          the school district.

Student Intern Selection
By its charter, NOD’s mission includes all disabilities. Therefore, from the outset, SOS
was open to Special Education students with physical, sensory, or developmental
disabilities. That has proven to be a strength of the program.

Special Education faculty select the student participants. Initially, most of those selected
had learning disorders. Gradually, as program coordinators and job site supervisors
gained confidence, they admitted students with social and emotional disabilities as well
as those with more serious developmental disabilities.

Though two of his students had to be replaced in the first week for shoplifting, a
high school principal commented reassuringly, ―I was sold on the program when you
took the kids who are the hardest to teach.‖

          Conclusion: Leaders should keep intern selection in the hands
          of those who work most closely with students day-to-day and
          who know best their interests, talents, and potential.

Job Site Selection
Because school systems do not normally include someone with job placement expertise,
or close institutional ties with the business community, we had to learn our way. Having
a locally hired person in small town East Haven, Connecticut, place students in or near
Main Street was relatively easy. The employers were her hair dresser, her lawyer, her
mayor. In the much larger job market of Stamford, we had to rely more on outside
professional expertise and less on personal connections.

County-based SOS programs in Alabama showed another way. In Montgomery,
employers were identified by the SOS Advisory Committee. But in rural areas, the
distance to work sites and limited public transportation posed another kind of challenge.
For example, to transport a mobility impaired student to her internship at Coca Cola, 10
miles from her high school, the committee tried three solutions: the bus, which left her a
third of a mile from the plant, a taxi that cost $15 per trip, and a parent volunteer driver.
Finally, accumulated frustration led the committee to transfer the intern to a new job site:
a doctor’s office three blocks from her aunt’s house.

Similar logistical and financial issues led to greater concentration on what were called
―cluster‖ job sites. In Baltimore, the University of Maryland, the UM Medical System,
and Johns Hopkins offered a wide range of jobs in a compact geographic area. In
Pittsburgh, a similar cluster consisted of the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon
and Cigna; in New Haven, it was Saint Raphael and Yale New Haven hospitals along
with Gateway Community College. The number and diversity of departments in these
institutions makes it far easier to match student interests and talents with appropriate

work sites, and to ensure that students are not placed in groups, but rather in individual

          Conclusion: Given finite resources, it is more efficient, cost
          effective and, for many interns, arguably more educational, to
          cluster the internships in larger institutional settings. Further,
          work with local universities will allow the project to take
          advantage of available volunteers, as well as to give university
          students experience in workforce development and working
          with students with disabilities.

Length of Internships
When we started, we envisioned perhaps a six-week program to give students brief,
firsthand immersions in nearby work places. Nothing more. Before long, the
professionals argued otherwise: ―Serious preparation for competitive employment takes

How long? For Baltimore, it was senior year — the first semester devoted to preparation
in school, the second semester spent on the job. In Philadelphia, after year one came the
realization, ―Some kids who are making good progress need a second year,‖ to which I
responded, ―How can we justify a second year that takes away a first year for another
kid?‖ The coordinator’s convincing response: ―Our responsibility is to do what is best for
those already enrolled in SOS.‖ That view won the day.

About that time, the Pittsburgh SOS site, ever competitive with its eastern rival, made
SOS the senior-year capstone to a four-year sequence. Prior to SOS, students completed a
two-year career training program, a mentorship in the business community, and a service

          Conclusion: There is no magical time frame. Each new SOS
          community should be creative in tailoring timelines to local
          priorities and resources.

Daily Schedules
The herculean task of timing and coordinating the interns’ work hours falls to scheduling
officers. In finding blocks of time for off-campus SOS internships, they must reconcile
individual education programs (Individualized Education Plans for Special Education
students), myriad demands on teacher schedules, and employer requests for interns
during certain hours on specific days. All this is made more challenging by the
imperatives of the federal No Child Left Behind law and the healthy desire of many SOS
students to continue their sports and other extracurricular activities.

          Conclusion: We at least need to offer accolades, if not pay
          increases and promotions, for the intrepid scheduling officers
          who cannot possibly satisfy everyone.

Initially, when I started as National Director of SOS, I suggested that we pay interns a
token $25 weekly stipend. My thinking was that the students would find the experience
so stimulating and valuable that they would not expect a regular wage. Two weeks into
our first pilot program, the coordinator in East Haven, CT admonished, ―Charley, high
school students without disabilities are getting minimum wage for their part-time jobs.
Why not ours?‖

From that point on, to ensure that interns would be taken seriously as co-workers in
training, we provided fair compensation. Payment of legitimate wages makes the
internship a more adult experience and increases the likelihood that the program will
operate on a businesslike basis. Depending on state or local legislation, the hourly
amount is either minimum wage or a special wage stipulated for interns or apprentices.
Some communities use a lower starting wage followed by minimum wage once the intern
has met the standards of the introductory probationary period.

          Conclusion: Pay them!

Job Site Support
The promise that SOS would provide a professionally trained job coach to accompany
interns has been an important reassurance for employers deciding whether or not to
accept an intern with a disability. Having access to experienced job coaches from New
Haven’s Easter Seals–Goodwill Industries Rehabilitation Center contributed importantly
to our success in the East Haven pilot project.

For example, the auditory perceptual learning disability of our intern at an East Haven
hair salon made it difficult for her to process oral instructions. If a brown-haired woman
wanted to become blond, it was necessary to know coded numbers for colors and a
formula to get from one color to another. Remembering how to apply the formula was a
serious problem for our intern. The clever job coach devised an effective solution: a large
stand-up chart on which the manager diagrammed the formula and outlined the numbered
steps to be followed. It worked. Fifteen years later, that pioneer intern is a full-time
employee at a prosperous hair salon.

On the other hand, we could not always count on availability of highly trained job
coaches. And when they were available, they were expensive — $55 an hour in the mid-

We tried other options. In Stamford, the transition coordinator attempted to train teachers
from participating high schools as job coaches, with predictable scheduling conflicts.

Philadelphia used a local service provider, Elwyn Institute, to train Penn students as job
coaches, with uneven results. In Alabama, where more students had physical disabilities,
for which the level of needed support can be more readily gauged, job coaches were
provided on an as-needed basis by the State Department of Rehabilitation Services.

The breakthrough came when we discovered that in all but a few cases, job coaches were
no longer needed in the major urban SOS programs. In ways that I had never anticipated,
the companies’ own job site supervisors — often from the same neighborhoods as the
interns — were proving to be remarkable mentors. Whether as instructor, counselor,
surrogate parent, or friend, these men and women see to it that ―their‖ charges make it in
the workplace. ―You have given me a gift,‖ said one. And another, ―This is the most
important responsibility I’ve had in my five years at the hospital.‖

Those attitudes are at the heart of the mentor-intern relationships, producing quite
remarkable achievements by SOS graduates.

          Conclusion: In most cases, job site supervisors, if properly
          oriented and taken seriously, will be impressively effective
          mentors and substitute job coaches.

My visit to Grand Apizza, a signature Connecticut pizza restaurant, taught me something
about the danger of underestimating potential. There, the SOS intern was a blind 17-year-
old from a school designed exclusively for those with ―mental retardation‖ (the language
then in use). She was learning to slice mushrooms.

First she was instructed to wash her hands, which she did, with a little help from the
supervisor. Next, she was set up at a counter with a basket of mushrooms and a small
cutting device into which the mushroom is placed before closing the cutting wires.
Initially, it was a mess, with mushrooms more crushed than cut. Then, by turning the
mushroom upside down, she found that not only could she get a clean cut, but she could
also lift the cutter, hold it over the bucket, and quite easily shake the sliced mushrooms
into the container. Before long, she was literally transformed from a struggling learner to
a confident, competent worker.

Of the interns we had placed, she clearly required the most support and flexibility. My
first reaction had been to question whether it made sense to use finite resources on one
person who seemed to have such limited capabilities. By the end of my visit, I was
chiding myself for not having had more confidence in her ability to learn and to adapt.

That lesson helped to underscore the importance of applying stretch expectations to all
that SOS was attempting to accomplish.

          Conclusion: Start where each student exists and build
          increasing expectations into every aspect of the intern

With a philosophy strongly grounded in family and individual self reliance, NOD
tries to ensure maximum parental involvement in SOS. This includes not only the parents’
decision to have their child participate, but, equally important, a regular parental presence
in program orientation, periodic conferences and the culminating end-of-year recognition

Methods of communicating with parents have varied from telephone contacts in Alabama
and Connecticut to home visits in Pittsburgh to regularly scheduled group meetings in
Philadelphia. Occasionally, a determined parent might be involved in an unusual way. In
Montgomery, the mother of a 17-year-old neurologically impaired stroke victim
transported her daughter to her YMCA job site and, without interfering, remained there in
case she was needed.

Unfortunately, because we were dealing with mostly single, working parents, our efforts
to involve them meaningfully often fell short. Whether for reasons of work or because of
personal and family issues, most SOS parents do not have time and energy for steady
involvement. Though some localities have had more success engaging parents, usually by
making participation a requirement of SOS admission, most coordinators are
understandably reluctant to penalize interns for the difficulties or absence of their parents.
Despite our limited success, parent involvement continues to be a priority for program

          Conclusion: The search continues for better ways to engage

Recognition Ceremonies
When we were determining the core elements for SOS, the people with the most
experience in school-to-work transition insisted that annual recognition ceremonies be a
requirement for every program. How right they were.

Whether held in a downtown hotel, university hall, or high school cafeteria, these events
are infused with warmth and caring. In celebrating year-long intern accomplishments,
they are impressively personal. Not only is each intern recognized, but emotions run
especially high when interns present gifts to their job-site supervisors and describe the
crucial role of those individuals in nurturing their job skills. The occasion also provides
an opportunity to recognize the contributions of employers, school personnel, families,
service providers, local officials, donors, and media.

In 2004, to recognize SOS’s tenth anniversary, representatives from all programs were
brought together at the Library of Congress for one gigantic celebration. Hosted by James
Billington, Librarian of Congress, and NOD President Alan Reich, the dinner honored
delegations from each SOS program, including interns and parents. On that occasion,
there were no absentee parents!

          Conclusion: Program leaders must never underestimate the
          importance of personal recognition.

Program flexibility, one of the great strengths of SOS, makes it difficult to compare our
overall expenses from one project site to another. Intern wages constitute the largest
single expense, with the amount depending on the total number of days and hours the
interns work. However, for transportation, support services, or administrative
compensation, each community has different requirements. And, each community has
widely differing potential for in-kind contributions. Fortunately, SOS has had
wonderfully resourceful people and organizations managing it at the local level.

In our first few years in communities with multiple job sites, expenses per intern varied
widely. In East Haven, where we were learning our way with expensive job coaches, we
spent $4,000 per intern for eight weeks; in Stamford, where we did not use outside job
coaches and the Board of Education made a larger contribution, we spent $2,000 per
intern. In Alabama, large in-kind contributions plus local fundraising kept expenses under
$1,000 per intern for the eight weeks.

In Year Three, the Annie E. Casey Foundation asked that we use their funds for those
most in need: urban neighborhoods with large numbers of low-income, minority students
with disabilities. That provided the impetus to launch the Philadelphia partnership, in
which a teacher and students from one high school (University City) worked with
supervisors at one employer (University of Pennsylvania). The partnership made for
greatly simplified logistics and better economics: each intern received a full year
internship for just under $4,000. Financially, that was the turning point. Philadelphia
became the prototype for all future urban programs, with expenses evening out at
approximately $75 per intern per week.

In the first three to five years of a new program, expenses are partially covered by startup
funds raised privately by NOD. By the end of that period, each local program assumes
responsibility for becoming financially self-sufficient. Thus far, by tapping into public
funding sources, primarily the federal departments of Labor and Education, all SOS
programs have met that goal. But, it is a continuing struggle for heavily burdened urban
public school districts.

          Conclusion: From day one, help new programs develop
          fundraising plans that emphasize local, private funding sources.

          Establish timelines and benchmarks for measuring ongoing
          progress toward achieving financial self-sufficiency.

Intern Tracking
Though we pride ourselves on being non-bureaucratic, we do require annual reports from
every program site, including data on numbers, age, gender, disabilities, jobs, expenses
and, for graduates, projected next steps.

Each program assumes responsibility for tracking the interns’ progress after graduation.
However, it is in this area that we are weakest. Whereas most programs make a good
faith effort to follow their SOS graduates for the first year following graduation, for
reasons of staffing and limited resources, some programs simply cannot track their
graduates much beyond their last day in the program.

Our ongoing efforts to improve tracking have met with limited success. It is a perennial
agenda item when representatives from all SOS programs meet annually to share
achievements (a process affectionately known as ―brag and steal‖), to solve problems and,
collectively, to chart a course for the next year.

          Conclusion: We must find more effective ways to gather
          transition data that will help to guide and strengthen future
          program revisions.

Program Evaluation
With projects like SOS, it is tempting to illustrate achievements through anecdotal

Job Coach: ―You have given me a gift.‖

Principal: ―We’re delighted. What more can I tell you?‖

Service Provider: ―Got us out of our routine. We began to think about higher

Parent: ―Never thought my son would be able to take public transportation on his own.‖
(The parent actually hid in the bus-stop bushes to see for himself!);

Superintendent: ―SOS successes have helped school-to-work transitioning for all

Employer: ―Project is clear, concise, to the point. That’s the beauty of this grant. Simple.

Teacher: ―Before this program, these kids rarely showed up at school. Now they are
excited. Philadelphia SOS is what education should be about.‖

Student Intern: ― If they would do this with more schools, the drop-out rate would go
down like this (two fingers going from wide apart to narrow).‖

Compelling as it may be, anecdotal evidence is not enough. Typically, interns receive two
evaluations: mid-program and final. These cover not only performance on assigned tasks
but the many different aspects of job-readiness skills including attendance, punctuality,
hygiene, dress, deportment, attitude, and overall behavior.

Since 1994, SOS has expanded from one pilot site with three interns to 46 sites with 300
interns in seven states. Drawing students from 48 secondary schools, the program now
works with 12 universities, 11 hospitals, one community college, and literally dozens of
small businesses ranging from auto repair shops, to health clinics, to food markets.

We measure results first by the number of students who successfully complete their
internships. That figure continues to hover between 85 and 90 percent.

Next, we do know that each of the major urban SOS programs has received national or
regional recognition as ―a model‖ or ―exemplary.‖ And more than 85 percent of their
graduates go on to full-time jobs or further education. Without the benefit of similar on-
site job training as a part of their academic year curriculum, only 30 percent of their peers
with disabilities have comparable success beyond high school.

Nationally, from more than 1,200 nominations, SOS and its Director were honored as one
of five Purpose Prize winners in 2006 for its innovation and entrepreneurial achievements.

Nonetheless, as described in the previous section, we have done well neither in following
graduates nor in measuring their future progress. Are they still employed six months or
two years out? Do their career paths provide opportunity for advancement and financial
improvement? How are they perceived in the workplace? Have they influenced co-
workers’ attitudes? Are they having a demonstrable effect on their employers’ bottom

These and related questions have never been studied in detail. A rigorous evaluation is
long overdue.

          Conclusion: We need a rigorous, professionally administered
          SOS evaluation to make the lessons of the past 15 years
          available to the broader educational community.


The Connecticut Cluster
During our first decade, we found that SOS’s success in cities was not matched in rural
areas. Though rural interns had equally good experiences, it was more difficult for
program leaders to engage the right partners, provide logistical support or sustain
volunteer committees. Concluding that part of the explanation lay in the isolation of rural
programs, we asked ourselves, ―Might not a group of mid-size communities, the kind that
characterize much of the American landscape, provide better results?‖ To test that
premise, we turned to the Connecticut State Department of Education’s Bureau of Special

The bureau provided a senior person to lead the effort and startup funds to launch SOS in
Southeastern Connecticut. With additional financial help from the U.S. Department of
Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, a regional cluster of five SOS programs
was phased in over a three-year period. It combined New Britain, New London, New
Haven, Middletown, and Bristol.

The director of the state’s Bureau of Special Education brings the SOS program
coordinators together three times yearly to report on their progress, discuss issues, and
swap ideas for ways to improve. Those sessions provide an atmosphere of collegiality,
professional substance, reassurance, and a sense of belonging to a larger entity, all of
which had been absent in rural SOS programs. As of this writing, not only do all five
programs remain in the cluster, but all the participating coordinators also credit their
success, in large measure, to collaboration among themselves and with the state.

Given how well regarded the SOS outcomes have been over the past 15 years, why has
there not been broader national replication? The answer is three-fold. First, when I agreed
in 1994 to try to ―do something for young people with disabilities,‖ I told Alan Reich that
I would serve part-time as National Director, do no fundraising, and resist secretarial
support. That arrangement doesn’t lend itself to national replication, which demands
more-than-full-time effort and lots of fundraising. Second, NOD was a lean organization
and wanted to stay that way. When the program flourished and became an obvious
candidate for aggressive replication, Alan pointed out that NOD was not in the business
of operating programs long-term, and that he could speak enthusiastically about SOS’s
success whether the annual numbers were 300 or 3,000.

Third, in the fall of 2009 the NOD Board unanimously approved a three-year strategic
plan that calls for a hold on further SOS replication. The thinking behind this decision is
that NOD’s evolving role should be limited to demonstrations that enhance employability
for people with disabilities. Rather than replicating new sites, further investment in SOS
should be for exploring new possibilities through existing sites.

With public funding, two examples of those new possibilities are now underway. In the
first, Start on Success was selected as one of two test projects to inform research on
school-to-work transition. A public grant from the Corporation for National and

Community Service supports SOS in New York City (our newest site) and Pittsburgh. In
the second example, the Department of Justice is exploring ways in which mentoring — a
key component of SOS — can be used to prevent adjudication and encourage career
engagement among disadvantaged youth, including those with disabilities. This DOJ
grant supports SOS in Baltimore and New Orleans.

We are excited about these new collaborations and the possibility of similar future

A Personal Addendum
SOS is a cost effective, non-bureaucratic, common sense way to prepare motivated young
people with disabilities for competitive employment. Longer range, it enables these
students to distance themselves from the shadows of poverty and welfare and become
productive, self-supporting members of our society.

Occasionally, someone learning about SOS will say to me, ―It must be tremendously
satisfying.‖ And of course it has been. But, I cannot overstate the privilege for me in
being associated with caring educators, serious employers, generous donors, and lively
and motivated young people. By their collective demonstration of what is possible,
frequently under daunting circumstances, they provide a hopeful rebuttal to oftentimes
disparaging generalizations about American public schooling, and remarkable examples
of the possibilities inherent in genuine public-private collaboration.

                                                                        Charles F. Dey
                                  Start on Success Founder and Former National Director

                                                                             April 7, 2010