building bridges

wabi feature: building bridges

Philip (left) and mother Jane (right) Blount, founders of the Bridges Program of Philips Academy
[by Brandon Wiggins]

If you go to the Flying Biscuit Café on Rea Road in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday or Wednesday afternoons, you might see Philip Blount. Philip is 20 years old, and, like a lot of 20-year-olds, works part time, serving as busboy, cleaning and even occasionally playing host. Like a lot of 20-year-olds, Philip uses public transportation, relying on Charlotte’s bus system to get to and from work.

Unlike a lot of 20-year-olds, however, Philip has never been to, nor will he ever go to, a four-year-college. This is because Philip has learning disabilities pronounced enough that he could never even go to a regular high school.

Fortunately, thanks to the Bridges Program of Philips Academy, these disabilities won’t hold Philip back from getting a job and moving out on his own.

“We knew from the beginning, when he pretty much came into the world,” says Philip’s mother Jane Blount, regarding her son’s disabilities. Philip has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and “developmental delays,” though Jane says they don’t really have a name for what that entails.

“Initially, you want answers . . . what is it, what does that mean, what’s he going to be able to do and not do . . . and we just never got that answer,” Jane says.

Philip began his academic career at Dore Academy in Charlotte, which itself is geared toward children with learning disabilities. But it is still a four-year-college preparatory school, and the Blounts realized that Philip wouldn’t be able to make it at a four-year-college. They began looking for schools geared toward kids with Philip’s level of disabilities, but quickly ran into a major obstacle: “There wasn’t anything available for kids like Philip,” says Philip’s father, Phil Blount.

So the Blounts decided to take matters into their own hands. In June 2005, the Blounts founded Philips Academy with educator Barbara Parrish to provide an education for kids who, according to one of the school’s brochures, deal with, “ . . . complex learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, social communication disorders, cognitive disorders or other related conditions that impact academic and life skills.” The school teaches children in grades six through 12 through a curriculum centered on small classrooms with highly individualized teaching.

Although the Blounts were happy with the success of Philips Academy, they realized they still needed something for kids like Philip who couldn’t move on to four-year colleges.

“Once they graduate from high school, what then? They’re still not ready for independent living, for any type of career or having a job or being able to support themselves. So that’s when we knew we needed to go to the next step and start Bridges,” says Phil Blount.

Once again, the Blounts had hoped to find what Philip needed, a type of post-graduate job training program. But they couldn’t find one available in the area, so they took matters into their own hands. The Blounts reached out to Matt Hull in June 2009 to help put the Bridges Program together.

wabi feature: building bridges

Blount and Matt Hull, director of the Bridges Program.

For Matt Hull, helping those with developmental disabilities has been a lifelong passion. Growing up, Hull had a cousin with Down syndrome, and he volunteered at a home for severely handicapped children. After college, at the suggestion of a former roommate, he began working with disabled individuals again. Before becoming the Director of the Bridges Program, Hull worked for a local agency called Residential and Support Services (RSS, now called InReach) to oversee its group homes.

In addition to these roles, Hull was, and remains, a Special Olympics coach, working with basketball and track and field. One of his track and field athletes was none other than Philip Blount.

“I got to know [Phil and Jane] and I was approached, when they were ready to begin this program, to see if it was something that was one, feasible, workable, and I was intrigued by the idea,” Hull says. So Hull came to take over the Bridges Program and build it from the ground up.

“He understood what we were trying to do,” Jane says of Hull, “ . . . he understood that yes these years after high school are really important.”

wabi feature: building bridges

A Bridges student practices skills around the house.

For the developmentally disabled, finding a quality vocational training and job placement program is critical. In March 2011, Sharon Lewis, the Commissioner of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities, gave a statement to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. In it, she revealed that only 17 percent of people with developmental disabilities are employed, compared to 63 percent of those without disabilities.

In order to get started, Hull researched programs similar to what he wanted Bridges to be, such as ClemsonLIFE, a program for the developmentally disabled housed at Clemson University in South Carolina, and The Horizons School, a school in Birmingham, Alabama, that is geared toward job training and post-high school education for the developmentally disabled.

Bridges is designed to be a two-year-program, but that can vary from student to student. The program, which started out with six students in the fall of 2009, prides itself on being able to offer each student an individualized course of study.

“We’re very individualized for each student, because we have the flexibility to change the program,” Hull says.

Students attending Bridges must have completed high school. While some of the students attended Philips Academy, the program accepts students who graduated from any high school (at least one student graduated from Myers Park High School, one of the most prestigious public schools in the Charlotte area). Once it’s time for the students to begin their education at Bridges, the first challenge is teaching these students – many of whom have never had any semblance of independence before – what it means to be independent.

“The very first semester is really getting them used to being an adult,” Hull says of the curriculum for the students, “ . . . because up until then many times the families have taken care of everything for their child.

“So we spend a very concentrated amount of time, and it may be more than one semester, but at least for the first semester, we focus on them becoming the adults that they are, and taking ownership of their life.”

Hull says that many of these children have relied on parents to interact with teachers for them, to make their meals and get them up in the morning.

Paul Slane, the director of career development with the program, points out that most of these students have no real work experience outside the home, and none of them have any paid experience.

Hull says that the school makes it a point to treat students like the adults they are. “One important note is that we don’t run ourselves like a school. We have faculty, but we’re more looked at as supervisors, and the students are employees, because the mindset that students have to have when they go into the workplace has got to be consistent.”

With the goal of job placement in mind, much of the teaching during the first semester is geared toward how to succeed in job interviews and in the workplace. “Prepping them for that first interview is a lot of what we do in the classroom setting,” Slane says.

Slane works with the students on such basic things as what to wear, what’s acceptable at what job locations, and on proper etiquette in the interview process, such as having a nice firm handshake, looking employers in the eyes, greeting them politely when they arrive and thanking them for the opportunity when they leave.

Beyond that, Slane talks with the students about what to do and not to do in work relationships such as the employer-employee relationship. He tells students that rule No. 1 is “safety first,” and to that end, classes go over the student’s legal worker’s rights and Occupational Safety and Health regulations. The program also brings job managers to campus to talk to the students about what to expect.

Additional skills that Bridges helps teach the students include time management, accepting more responsibility, and soft skills such as how to relate to supervisors and co-workers, being prompt, having integrity and developing a good work ethic.

After the first semester, the focus then really shifts toward job placement. Essential to Bridge’s success in arranging these opportunities is Slane, who takes responsibility for reaching out to businesses in the area and developing partnerships. Slane generally goes to meet managers of various local businesses and tell them about the Bridges Program and what the program is trying to accomplish. He also tells them, of course, that these students can do quality work for the managers.

Slane developed many of these early relationships alone, but he prefers to take the students with him to talk about the school themselves when he meets the managers. He likes this approach in part because it is a good opportunity for the students to hone their social skills, and in part because, in his words, “I found a much higher success rate when the students can go out and tell [the managers] a little bit about the program.”

Although Slane says he’s had meetings with managers in which he’s been able to tell that they won’t be able to develop a business relationship, it’s never been a negative experience.

“We’ve been received very well; there’s never been anybody that’s right out said no,” he says, “ . . . they’ve been understanding, and even if we don’t develop a relationship, it’s a positive experience for the students.”

So far, Bridges has just over 30 business partners in the community, according to Hull. The majority of these partners are restaurants, with Chick-fil-A being one of the program’s biggest supporters. Trying to get a quote from a Chick-fil-A representative to go here but that has been extremely difficult so far.

To start the job-placement process, Bridges places students in unpaid volunteer opportunities, getting them their first taste of what it is like to be an employee and work under a supervisor.

In the second year, the program starts placing students into what it calls internships, where students can work in part time employment with the program’s business partners.

“[An internship] gives the student an opportunity, one, to prove themselves, and, two, to see if it’s something they truly want to do. If they want to do it, and they’re good at it, and they’ve proven themselves, all we ask of our partners is that they give them the same consideration as they would any applicant for hire. We’ll help the student get the application, fill out the application, go through the interview process, and hopefully they have the opportunity to get hired,” Hull says.

Although resume building is obviously a key goal of the program, Slane says that the most important thing is giving the students a positive work experience, as it is essential for this population to have positive experiences early on.

“You have to have an environment where the manager and the other people, they get it,” says Jane Blount.

Slane says that some of the managers do treat the students differently because of their disabilities. He says, though, “My preference is that they treat them the same as they would any other employee, and some of our partners do understand that.” Slane says equal treatment is important because once the students are working on their own away from Bridges, they will be held to the same standard as any other employees.

The hardest part of the job, according to Slane, is figuring out which students fit which programs. To do that, it’s necessary to know what their strengths and weaknesses are and what they like to do, so that the program can find the best location for them. Of course, some students are harder to find a good fit for than others.

While the students are involved in their part-time work placements, they still work in the classroom on more general life skills, including using cell phones to plan their routines, money management, and cooking and preparing meals. Public transportation is also a big focus of the program, as students are taught to take the bus to and from campus to their jobs. In addition, the program places a heavy emphasis on helping the kids enrich their social lives.

“Many of the students have school friends and church friends, but we’re hoping that they can connect with some people at work . . . and then also adult groups out there too, like self-advocate groups, or other hobbies or likes that they may have, so branching out and expanding their social network,” says Hull. “So that takes a little more encouragement, and sometimes faculty have to really facilitate that by taking them to something, to introduce it, and then hopefully they make those connections and we’ll help introduce them to people, and sometimes it just takes off, and other times it’s much more difficult. But that’s one of our goals with our folks, is to stay in touch with the friends that they’ve made, to maintain those friendships and to make new friends.”

Jane Blount, Philip’s mom, likes that emphasis on social life. “What’s good, too, about the Bridges program is it encourages everyone to get involved in the community . . . because that’s a big part of being independent and having a full life,” she says. “Because it is difficult for a young adult with disabilities to be involved.”

As far as job placement goes, the program has been a success. So far, 12 out of the program’s 17 students were hired after the end of the program. For Philip Blount, who is in his second year in the Bridges program, the experience has certainly been rewarding. Philip has two jobs now, his Monday-Wednesday job at Flying Biscuit Café, as well as a job at Dee Jai Thai restaurant Tuesday and Thursday evenings. His parents say they think he can move on to a full-time job after he finishes the program.

“We’ve been fairly successful in students who have applied themselves . . . they do get hired,” says Hull. “Generally it’s part time, but that’s really what they can handle at this point in their lives.”

“We’re really that stepping stone to independence,” says Hull. “We’re teaching them all the tools that they need to succeed, and ultimately it’s up to that student to use those tools to go as far as they want.”

wabi feature: building bridges

A Bridges student brings her skills to the workplace.

Even after students leave the Bridges Program, the program tries to offer them follow- up support and stay connected with former students, something Hull says differentiates Bridges from other programs such as ClemsonLIFE.

Overall, Hull emphasized the process of developing true independence continues for these students even after they leave Bridges. Being able to live on their own, for instance, is not something many of them can handle until their mid-20s.

However, the Bridges Program is already thinking about residential training as another facet of its students’ educations. Last spring, the program started a Residential Transition Training component. For four nights a week, every other week, three of the students would live with a supervisor in a house away from their families, in order to learn how to take care of themselves on their own. This fall, they’ve found a new home right next to campus that they’ve begun renting and expanded the program to a weekly basis.

“Eventually, I think Bridges may end up being a residential program with a vocational component, versus a vocational program with a residential component,” Hull says.

One of the students staying in the group home last spring was Philip Blount, and, according to his parents, it was a great experience for him. So much so, in fact, that they’ve purchased a condominium for him to stay in with another Bridges student, and they are in the process of getting it set up for him to move into sometime this spring.

“You go to all these experts, and they tell you what your child could do and more so what they couldn’t do, but we as parents believed otherwise,” says Phil Blount, “We had in our mind what [Philip] could do, and it’s a lot more than what the doctors thought he could do.”

Thanks to the Bridges Program, Philip has proved them right. Soon, he will be living independently, holding down a steady job, enabling him to be a contributor to his community at large. Just like most other people in their early 20s.


Philips Academy will be a leader in functional and career education. This will be accomplished through teacher recruitment, regular staff development, and on-going collaboration with community agencies.

Philips Academy will offer a pragmatic, purposeful program that will insure the students a successful transition into the community in which they choose to live. This will be accomplished through development and implementation of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), incorporation of a job portfolio into the graduation requirement, and strong community and parent involvement.

Our school provides real world learning and work experiences, positive supportive environments and community partnerships with area businesses and agencies. The curriculum is student centered with small group classes and individualized plans in career and personal development. Families are recognized as important team members whose encouragement of the student’s self-direction and independence is often the key to their success.

The Bridges program offers a two-year core curriculum which includes 30 hours a week of classes and work/field placement. Students learn essential life skills through direct instruction, mentoring and community application. Vocational and career skills are developed through comprehensive assessment, job sampling/internships, and feedback and training with employers. Students will participate in weekly, individual advisement sessions with Bridges staff to set goals, manage community supports and track progress. Scheduled social activities and recreational opportunities will allow students to develop healthy relationships and lifestyle habits.

Following successful completion of the two-year core program, Bridges students may choose to enter full-time into their chosen career or continue their education in a community college setting.

Appropriate candidates for Philips Academy exhibit the following characteristics:
1. Intellectual functioning between 70 and 100, based on standardized testing.
2. No history of significant behavioral or psychological disorders.
3. Ability to work within a small group and to transition between school and community activities.
4. Socially naïve and motivated to work hard.
5. Family network committed to working with the school.