In his sophomore year in high school, Robbie Prall—tall, lean, and a huge fan of the Washington Redskins football team—told his teachers that his plan after graduation was to be a football linebacker.
From his mother’s perspective, the school-initiated conversations about her son’s plans after high school pretty much ended there.
“They never brought it down to be more realistic,” said Crystal Prall, Robbie’s mother. Instead, she felt that it was left up to the family to develop postsecondary plans for Robbie and his identical twin, Cullen, who both have intellectual disabilities.
Both young men earned a modified standard diploma from the 14,000-student Alexandria district, which allowed them to graduate without passing Virginia’s end-of-course tests.
Now 20, the brothers live at home, and both have jobs they say they enjoy. Robbie works in the housekeeping department of a local hotel, doing jobs like delivering linens to be washed. He also works at an athletic-shoe store once a week. “Whatever a customer says that they need, I go back and bring it to them,” Robbie said.
Cullen got a job at Inova Alexandria Hospital through a partnership his high school has with the national program. Project SEARCH, which has been in Alexandria since 2012, places young adults with disabilities in hospitals and with other large employers to learn job skills. Cullen started work in September 2014, but a month later was hired directly to work in patient transport.
Though twins, the brothers do have different interests. “I didn’t like the hospital aspect” of Project SEARCH, Robbie said.
But for Cullen, the experience was just what he was looking for. “I like being in the emergency room, transporting people. It’s fast-paced and it’s very social,” he said.
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Ms. Prall calls children like her sons “tweeners.” Their disabilities are not so severe that they required self-contained classrooms as they moved through school. But they also could not meet regular academic standards.
Their high school careers were spent primarily in traditional high school classes, and so they could not be taken out of class for a portion of the day for job training or the life-skills classes she felt they needed, Ms. Prall said.
“I think we do a really poor job with the middle kids that don’t have the behavioral challenges and that don’t have the total academic skills,” she said. “The kids with the behavioral issues demand the attention, because of their needs. The ones that don’t have the behavioral issues just melt in the back of the room.”
She added: “We are so school-minded, instead of life-minded. We’ve lost sight of what’s really important.”
Jane Quenneville, the special education director for the Alexandria district, agreed with Ms. Prall’s concerns. The school system case managers who work with youths and families could do a better job of helping transform potentially unrealistic future plans into reality, she said.
“How do you take that dream of being a football player and carve out something around the spirit of that job?” Ms. Quenneville added. “We do need to do a better job of training our case managers in how to have those conversations.”
The inflexibility of the school day for students on a traditional academic track is also a concern, she said."We have no time during the day to get them trained.”
Partnerships with Project SEARCH, as well as in-school job opportunities, are intended to help address those issues, she said.
“We’re trying to start them younger, so that they’re better prepared” for transitioning out of school, Ms. Quenneville said.
Employment has been a positive change for Cullen and Robbie, their mother said. Both have mastered public transportation to get to their jobs, and Ms. Prall said they both “walk taller” now that they are employed.
“There’s definitely this huge sense of accomplishment and success that they didn’t have in school,” she said.