| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Google Plus


START Community Conversations help students gain valuable opportunities

Mari MacFarland, a teacher consultant at Livonia Public Schools, welcomes participants during a START Community Conversation in Wayne County in December 2014.

Participants in a START Community Conversation in Wayne County listen to panel members talk about the benefits of employing students with disabilities.

At each START Community Conversation, organizers give each table of participants a question card to prompt discussions about difficult topics facing students with disabilities.

For decades, employees at DTE Energy in Detroit used an outdated filing system. It didn’t work properly and everyone hated using it.
Anthony changed all that.
Within three months of working at DTE, Anthony, a Detroit high school student, revamped and color-coded the filing system. All of his coworkers were “blown away,” said Rebecca Drzewicki, a DTE human resources compliance specialist. No one had asked him to do it.
Anthony was hired through a partnership between DTE and Project SEARCH. Project SEARCH works with employers and community agencies to help youth with disabilities gain meaningful work experiences and transition more smoothly to life after school.
Drzewicki talked about DTE’s experience with Project SEARCH last December in Wayne County during a new program created by Statewide Autism Resources and Training, called START Community Conversations. These events bring together a diverse group of community members, including educators, family members and employers, to brainstorm employment and internship opportunities for Michigan students with autism spectrum disorder who are transitioning out of high school.
The inspiration for START Community Conversations came from Dr. Erik Carter, a special education associate professor at Vanderbilt University, who gave a presentation at START’s annual conference in 2013.
According to Carter, parents are instrumental in creating opportunities for their children, but communities as a whole still struggle to foster an inclusive environment for students with disabilities. He found that communities benefited most from informal gatherings that used the “World Café” conversational process, in which participants collectively brainstorm potential solutions to complex challenges.
After Carter’s presentation, START began requiring each of its 17 Regional Collaborative Networks throughout the state to host one Community Conversation per year. Now, each region is required to host two.
All START Community Conversations begin with the same basic formula. The planning committee chooses an informal venue to hold the event and invites a diverse group of 10-60 community members. Anyone can attend; participants range from parents and educators to employers and agencies. Everyone breaks into small groups to discuss thought-provoking questions asked by the organizers.
With the help of a facilitator, the group then comes together to share answers and ideas that can turn into action items, such as a “reverse job fair” in which students set up booths and show their portfolios to employers who stop by.
Mari MacFarland, a teacher consultant at Livonia Public Schools and Eileen Brandt, a parent of a student with ASD, were inspired by Carter’s presentation. MacFarland connected with Sheila Byrne, an education consultant who coordinates START activities in Wayne County, to tailor START Community Conversations for their region.
START Community Conversations take a slightly different shape in each region they’re held. Some regions have brought in representatives from their local Chamber of Commerce. Others have focused their START Community Conversations around specific issues such as transportation. Wayne County, where Drzewicki talked about Project SEARCH, has focused on how to better provide meaningful work opportunities for students with ASD.
Overall, only 20 percent of people with disabilities participate in the workforce, compared to 69.1 percent of people without disabilities, as of June 2015. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities, at 9.3 percent, is nearly double that of people without disabilities.
Young adults with ASD have the lowest rate of employment among people with disabilities. Only 58 percent of youth with ASD are employed between high school and their early 20s, according to a 2015 report from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.
“We always talk about early intervention, but older students are about to hit adulthood,” said MacFarland. “They need some TLC, too.”
To host a START Community Conversation in your area:
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts