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Education Funding

Shutdown Hits Everything from Smithsonian Interns to Race to the Top Applications

By Alyson Klein — October 02, 2013 2 min read
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There’s been little impact so far from the government shutdown on K-12 schools around the country, but a handful of public and private school students in the Washington area are an unfortunate exception.

These students—roughly 40 in all—are part of a national program called Project SEARCH, which helps prepare students with disabilities for the workforce. The program, which is operated by a non-profit organization in Cincinnati, helps students and young adults with disabilities gain career experience and workplace skills through a blend of classroom instruction and on-the-job training. The interns, who are typically in their final year of eligibility for special education services, spend a year at a range of job sites, including hospitals, banks, and universities.

In the Washington area, the interns are often placed at federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of the Interior, the Smithsonian, and even the Department of Education.

The interns—who have a range of special needs, including intellectual, mental health, and physical disabilities—lend a hand with filing, assist with data entry, help prepare conference rooms for meetings, and help out in the mailroom, for example. Some Education Department interns have actually worked in U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan’s office—they’ve even helped staff sort through twitter. (400 Maryland Ave. actually hosted its first-ever graduation in 2011, on behalf for Project SEARCH interns.) Some have wound up finding permanent positions at federal agencies.

But, thanks to the shutdown, the government interns can’t go to their job sites.

“They’re not allowed in the federal buildings,” said Rebecca Salon, the manager of the State Office of Disability Administration at the District of Columbia Department on Disability Services, which partners with Project SEARCH. And many of the federal employees who supervise the interns are furloughed, and others have had seen their workplace responsibilities shift, she added.

The timing isn’t great, Salon said. “It’s only a month into the school year, so they really were just getting started. Now they will have an indeterminate amount of time” away from their job sites, she added.

The program has worked out alternate arrangements for the students—the Smithsonian interns are helping out in a nearby office, for example.

“They’re managing, but the number one question from all of them is, ‘When do we get back to our real jobs?’ ” said Lu Merrick, the director of the post high school program at the Ivy Mount School in Rockville, Md., a private school for students with disabilities that participates in the program.

Another casualty of the shutdown: Applications for the Race to the Top for districts, which are due tomorrow. A delivery driver charged with bringing some applications to the U.S. Department of Education did not stop because of the shutdown, said Cameron French, a spokesman for the department.

“We have made contact with the delivery company and they will be returning to the building to make the delivery,” French wrote in an email. “Other delivery companies have been successful in making deliveries to the department, [so] this appears to be an isolated incident.”

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