People standing and talking at information tables at a conference.
Connecticut's Bureau of Rehabilitation Services recently hosted a daylong conference for employers, vocational services agencies and state agencies to learn about job programs for individuals with disabilities. Courtesy of CT Bureau of Rehabilitation Services

This story has been updated.

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded Connecticut a $10 million grant to strengthen school-to-career transition services for youth with disabilities in the state. 

Connecticut’s Bureau of Rehabilitation Services will use the funds over five years to develop programs that help students, beginning as young as age 10, to build independence, develop life skills and explore their career interests. BRS will launch the effort with a pilot program in the Stratford and Norwalk public school districts as well as Unified School District #1 within the state Department of Correction.

“It’s about raising the expectation — from a very young age, for children with disabilities — of going to work someday,” said David Doukas, director of the state’s Bureau of Rehabilitation Services. The curriculum developed through the program, Doukas said, “will begin to sow the seeds of career development.”

Nationwide, the education department gave out $199 million under the grant, known as “Pathways to Partnerships” — the largest discretionary grant ever offered by the department’s Rehabilitation Services Administration. 

Federal officials stressed that the funding should support “collaborative partnerships” across the many government agencies that support people with disabilities — from local educational districts to state vocational services agencies to federally-funded “independent living centers,” which provide peer coaching and support as individuals learn to advocate for themselves and gain independence. 

“The idea is to create collaborative networks across the region,” said George Michna, the bureau chief at BRS who wrote the state’s grant application and will be leading efforts to implement it. “Those connections do exist, but what we’re able to do is to make those connections stronger, and we’re able to then share best practices across the state… across a much larger scale.”

Michna said the plan is to expand the model to two additional school districts each year and to be able to implement the programs statewide by the end of the grant’s five-year term. The funds will also cover professional development for educators, as well as a new, comprehensive website with career transition resources for students, families, teachers and employers. 

The “Pathways to Partnerships” award comes on top of another five-year federal grant, awarded to Connecticut last year, intended to shift the state’s vocational services programs away from models that offer employment to people with disabilities but pay less than minimum wage. Instead, Connecticut aims to promote what’s known as “competitive, integrated employment” — that is, jobs that pay at or above minimum wage where the employee works together with people who don’t have disabilities. 

“We’re hoping to be able to, through all those resources, reach down into middle school [and] train school personnel on these activities,” Doukas said. That way, by the time students with disabilities reach age 16, when pre-employment programs begin, “They’re already of the mindset that, ‘Yeah, I’d like to invest in the career pathways, I think I am going to be capable of higher-level success,’” Doukas said.

BRS is also currently piloting work-based learning programs for younger students in some districts, with the hope that they’ll transition into competitive, integrated employment once they’ve finished school. “We want to have these students and their families have access to career-readiness types of preparatory services… to really have a different mindset created with them — that competitive integrated employment is possible for them when they graduate from school,” Doukas said.

“They’re talking a good game,” John Flanders, board president of Special Education Equity for Kids of CT, said of the grant funding BRS has received and its plans for using it. 

But Flanders said it could be a steep climb for the agency to develop the kinds of comprehensive, individualized career transition plans students in Connecticut need — and $10 million probably won’t come close to covering the cost of helping the state’s 180,000 students enrolled in special education programs. 

“What I hope is there is actual concrete action — not more discussions, not more meetings, not more papers,” he said. Instead, existing programs need to be rigorously evaluated and thrown out if they’re not working, and individual students should have a career transition plan designed specifically for their strengths and needs, he said. 

“That’s hard,” Flanders said. “It’s going to require a significant step up.” But it’s important, he added. “Too many kids with disabilities are getting shortchanged, and too many kids with disabilities in urban settings are getting just left behind.”

Correction

An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Unified School District #1 within the Department of Correction.

Erica covers economic development for CT Mirror. Before moving to Connecticut to join the staff she worked in Los Angeles for public radio’s Marketplace and, before that, for the Wall Street Journal's L.A. bureau. She grew up in Minneapolis, MN, graduated from Haverford College and earned a master’s in journalism from the University of Southern California.