Op-Ed | Bronx educators help youth with disabilities transition from school to career

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On March 30, the Institute for Career Development and Discovery High School in the Fordham Heights section of the Bronx launches an initiative that will grow to be citywide to help youth with disabilities transition from school to career.
Photo courtesy Discovery High School

Nearly 1 million New Yorkers live with a disability, and nearly 17% of New Yorkers of working age with a disability were unemployed in 2021, according to the Center for an Urban Future. That’s more than three times the U.S. unemployment rate of 5.5% for 2021. Fortunately, two New York City high schools – Discovery High School in the Bronx and Richmond Hill High School in Queens – are now leading the effort to close that gap.

A significant contributing factor to that high rate of unemployment for New Yorkers with disabilities emerged from research conducted for the Institute for Career Development (ICD) by the nonprofit consulting firm The Bridgespan Group. It showed that tens of thousands of students with disabilities leave public high schools every year in New York City only to find themselves face to face with a gap where the services they depended upon to finish school had previously been. They are left on their own to pursue career opportunities and often struggle as a result.

Working with the Institute for Career Development, where we are co-presidents, Discovery High School and Richmond Hill High School launched this fall what is expected to become a citywide initiative to ensure that, while still in high school, students with disabilities formulate their career interests, whether they involve higher education or vocational training, and gain the skills and pathways needed to pursue those interests after they graduate.

Two other Bronx institutions are partnering with Discovery High School in this initiative: Kingsbridge Heights Community Center is providing students with practical work experience, and Montefiore Medical Center is providing volunteer service opportunities. At Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, the Discovery High School students are providing support for a community food pantry as well as supporting after-school programming for middle school students.

Through this initiative, the ICD now has on-site at each school a full-time “navigator.” At Discovery High School, it’s Justine Huertas. 

The navigators are available to work with any student who has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan – to guide the students in envisioning and pursuing fulfilling careers. They work with students starting in the 9th grade and continuing through at least one-year post-graduation to provide a host of services from in-depth evaluations and career exploration activities to connecting students to real-world work experiences and advanced post-secondary training. The Navigators are provided by ICD at no cost to students or schools, as part of this two-school pilot program to demonstrate the citywide potential. 

The navigators are in turn supported by ICD’s full-time Transition Services Manager Mirka Tejada who splits her time between school sites, amplifying the services provided by the navigators and operating as the primary point of contact for school staff and parents of program participants. ICD staff are also working with each school to increase the number of employer partners within their communities to provide work or volunteer experiences for their students.

As we considered various schools to launch this initiative, we chose Discovery High School as one of the two initial schools because it already had a strong commitment to students with disabilities, and it had a desire to augment that existing commitment with the services that ICD offered.

With the start of the initiative this fall, students with disabilities at Discovery High School are already enrolled in this new service. They are automatically included, unless they opt out.

Those students now have individualized attention from a skilled navigator to help them consider their futures, what careers interest them, and what paths will take them there. In addition, the participating students are helping not only themselves but all students with disabilities in New York City by participating in this initiative and giving it the momentum needed to grow to serve the entire city.

Diosdado Gica and Joseph T. McDonald are co-presidents of the Institute for Career Development.