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Research Aims To Improve Job Placement Outcomes For Project SEARCH Grads

Erickson Hall framed by spring blossoms.

Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or IDD, in Michigan generally have a higher rate of unemployment than their peers across other states.

At Michigan State University, researchers have been developing learning experiences to change those statistics for young people. Now, they plan to learn if combining two job-related training programs can enhance employment readiness, thanks to a new grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

“We’re looking at how we can improve outcomes for students in Project SEARCH programming in Michigan,” said associate professor Marisa Fisher, co-director of the MSU-based Spartan Project SEARCH program.

2018 Spartan Project SEARCH graduates.

Project SEARCH began in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s hospital to provide internships and training in a real work immersion experience, especially for young adults with IDD those transitioning from school to adulthood or work. Project SEARCH has grown to over 600 sites in 46 states and 10 countries—including in 2016, when MSU established the on-campus Spartan Project SEARCH.

“We’re thrilled with our partnership with Michigan State,” said Susie Rutkowski, co-director of Project SEARCH. “We hope this grant is a new step in helping students with cognitive challenges build the best possible skillset.”

The new $249,927 in funding from the Institute of Education Sciences, or IES, will help the researchers, along with practitioners and organizations across the state, determine if Project SEARCH could be enhanced through additional standardized curriculum.

The research—done in collaboration with the Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Rehabilitation Services and Project SEARCH—will examine the efficacy of two types of programming to help determine which has stronger employment-related outcomes:

  • The original model of Project SEARCH, including 7.5 hours per week of classroom instruction on functional employment and independent living skills, along with 20 hours each week of work at an internship site.
  • Project SEARCH plus Assistive Soft Skills and Employment Training, or ASSET, and Employment Preparation and Skills Support, or EPASS. Combined with the original Project SEARCH model, this includes 23 weeks of work-related social skills and job readiness curriculum implemented twice per week at 50 minutes per session. Teachers will also receive a training session to help implement the additional ASSET-EPASS curriculum.

Marisa Fisher (far right) speaks with Spartan Project SEARCH interns.

“This grant is unique because we have been working with our partners from the very beginning to answer this important question and come up with a practical solution together,” said Connie Sung, associate professor and the co-director of Spartan Project SEARCH with Fisher.

Sung developed the ASSET-EPASS programming in 2017.

“From what we’re seeing of participants at MSU, those who participate in Project SEARCH are getting jobs, but are struggling to maintain them,” Fisher said. “By studying the efficacy of these types of programming, we’re investigating if standardizing the curriculum will help.”

“Project SEARCH is more than just a program. It is truly an opportunity for young adults with disabilities to develop and refine employability and life skills that will lead to greater independence and quality of life,” said Scott Koenigsknecht, deputy superintendent for the Michigan Department of Education. “Partnering with MSU has been another step forward for Project SEARCH as it furthers and strengthens the evidence and research base that exists pertaining to transition programming within the state of Michigan and across the nation.”

Connie Sung (left) works with a Spartan Project SEARCH intern (right).

Over nine months, 18 Project SEARCH sites across Michigan will randomly be assigned to utilize either just Project SEARCH, or the program with the addition of the ASSET-EPASS curriculum. More than 160 students will participate.

“Partnering with MSU ensures we have valid data to improve Project SEARCH sites across the state, ultimately improving the services we provide to help all Michiganders have an equal path to employment,” said Maureen Webster, rehabilitation consultant manager at Michigan Rehabilitation Services.

Connie SungKim Ward Via MSU TODAY

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