Arkansas's New Promise
The Arkansas Department of Education recently received a $32 million federal research grant from the U.S. Department of Education. This award, known as the PROMISE grant, was created to help teenagers with disabilities who receive Supplemental Security Income. The PROMISE program strives to help SSI-qualified children ages 14-16 graduate from high school, college and job-training programs. This will give them a better chance to become economically self-sufficient as adults and reduce their dependence on SSI payments.
Arkansas was one of only six recipients of this competitive, five-year grant. The Arkansas Departments of Education, Career Education, Workforce Services, Health, Human Services, and Higher Education worked with the University of Arkansas to develop the state's proposal. There was also collaboration with the Clinton Foundation and SOURCES, an Arkansas group that helps the disabled lead more independent lives. These agencies will continue to collaborate over the next five years as PROMISE provides services to 1,000 youth and their families.
Many times, families aren't aware of existing services available through our state agencies, local school districts and communities. Other times, these entities provide services that are redundant, rather than complementary. Each PROMISE family will be paired with a caseworker who will assist them in coordinating with state agencies, school districts and community leaders. These caseworkers will help ensure that these families receive the appropriate support and services for their disabled teenagers.
Teens with disabilities are not usually exposed to a paid work experience, leaving them out of the competitive workplace until they are finished with school. When they try to enter the job market, they find themselves discouraged not only by their disability, but by the disadvantage of lacking prior work experience. The PROMISE program will provide the 1,000 participants with at least 200 hours of paid work--along with job coaching and career-readiness training. That will put them on more level footing with their peers when they enter the workforce as adults.
In addition to in-school classes and on-the-job training, youth and families in the PROMISE program will also attend monthly training sessions. These workshops will focus on achieving self-sufficiency, career readiness and managing family finances.
Ultimately, these interventions are designed to raise hope and expectations for disabled children who are SSI recipients. Through education and competitive employment, these families can achieve a higher standard of living than they currently experience on government benefits.
The dual burden of poverty combined with disability can seem hopeless and insurmountable. But, when these families are shown the potential outcomes that allow our most vulnerable young people to succeed as independent adults, it is inspiring for them and their communities. And while the PROMISE program is limited in its time and scale, it can provide a model for Arkansas and the nation that helps everyone build productive, successful lives.