At least four times a month, Jason Neely has an important afternoon appointment. The 18-year-old senior leaves Coolidge High School in Washington, DC, and heads downtown. His destination is a modern glass-and-brick building on the George Washington University campus. There he gets career training and mentoring. The goal: to prepare him for the career of his dreams.
Neely, who has , is in a city program for students with disabilities. It’s called the Competitive Employment Opportunities (CEO) program. Students must be ages 16 to 22 to be in the program. They have to have an .They also have to be on track to get a diploma, says Raymond Hutchison. He runs the program, which is part of the school district’s Office of Specialized Instruction.
The CEO program gives students the chance to explore careers and receive professional training. They also get work experience through paid internships. The goal is to give them tools to succeed in careers they feel passionate about.
Since January, Neely has been meeting for 90 minutes every other week with his mentor, Jamiel Charlton. She’s helping him create a business plan. His dream is to start a company called Neely Drumsticks.
“I want to change the game by making a drumstick out of bubinga wood that will last longer and have better sound,” says Neely. He’s been drumming since he was 4 years old. He already makes money playing regularly all around the city. And he’s confident that his idea for a better drumstick is a winner.
Charlton is a procurement analyst for NASA. This is her second year volunteering with the CEO program. Her youngest son, who’s now college age, was identified with a learning difference in third grade. She works with the CEO program because she wants to give back. “It’s rewarding to work with kids and I feel like I’m making a difference,” she says.
Neely also finds their sessions valuable. “I like working with her because the way my ADHD works is when I’m working one-on-one, I can be really focused,” he says.
On weeks when Neely isn’t meeting with Charlton, he attends a career development session. There, he and other high-schoolers learn about how to be professional at work. They’re taught skills like self-advocacy, how to write a resume and how to manage a bank account.
The program uses mentors from many different kinds of workplaces. These include the Architect of the Capitol, which takes care of Capitol Hill’s iconic buildings and grounds, and the Joy of Motion Dance Center. The idea is to give students a better sense of the wide range of careers out there.
From January to June, students in the CEO program work with their mentors on a project and a presentation. The final projects are judged and prizes are awarded. Each student receives a certificate of completion.
During the summer, each student works 80 to 100 hours as a paid intern at his mentor’s place of business. Wages are paid by the school district. CEO students also receive a small stipend for expenses and to teach them about banking.
Once the internship ends, the students become CEO alumni. They can get up to five years of one-on-one guidance counseling through the program. CEO alumni tend to go on to college or jobs after they graduate from high school.
The program is now 3 years old. More than 160 kids applied online in hopes of nabbing one of the 35 slots in this year’s program.
Hutchison says the program doesn’t look at the students’ disabilities when deciding who makes the final cut. The big factors are how excited and committed each student is. The program also looks at whether it has a mentor who fits the student’s interests.
The CEO program was meant to serve two purposes. One is to provide career mentoring. The other is to offer a range of internships. “We wanted to make sure that we were not tracking students into specific careers that fit our ideas for them—but into careers that they were actually interested in,” Hutchison says. “Now we’re doing a better job of offering a broader range of career options.”
Neely agrees. “I like this program because it’s giving me a chance to start working on my own business,” he says.
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Geri Coleman Tucker is a freelance writer and editor and a former deputy managing editor for