The Evolution of Kevin Sargeant

July 8, 2011
High school’s work-based learning program provided more than just an education—it offered a future he never imagined possible.

Kevin SargeantGiven a choice, Kevin Sargeant says he could do without all of the independence and opportunities that adulthood promises. But adulthood, it seems, is coming for him nonetheless.

Six years ago, the prospect would have had him quivering in confusion, fear, and anxiety—if he chose to acknowledge it at all. Back then, Kevin says, he was shelled up, locked in, lower-functioning, or any other of the myriad terms often used to describe children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. “For so long, I was just on autopilot. I was just living this empty life, but I didn’t even realize it was empty, because I didn’t know anything else,” says Kevin, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 11 years old. “The world existed to help Kevin, and Kevin existed to be helped, and that’s all there was.”

To say simply that he’s changed wouldn’t do justice to the transformation that occurred between his first day as a sixth grade student at Kennedy Krieger Middle School and his graduation in May 2010. By all appearances and all accounts, he is, in fact, a completely different young man. “It’s been done to death, the caterpillar to butterfly analogy,” says Joe Ryland, who taught Kevin several times throughout the course of his high school education at Kennedy Krieger. “But to see him come out of that shell over time, it was amazing.”

Of course, as Kevin evolved, so did his perspective. Today, his world—and his own place within it— differs drastically. Thanks to his education here, including his experience with the high school’s work-based learning program, which gives students a chance to experience real-world job experiences, there’s now a world out there just waiting for him to venture into it. Perhaps the biggest change of all, however, is that he’s ready.

When Age Is Just A Number

It is perhaps one of the foremost goals in any school system: prepare your students for the world ahead. But for students diagnosed with developmental, intellectual, or learning disabilities, adulthood and independence don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Milestone birthdays may come and go and still find these children needing significant support and assistance from parents and caregivers.

For many of these young men and women, coming of age is more a concept than a reality. Independence can be either a dream or a nightmare, depending.

“I realized a long time ago that adult living was going to be harder than being a kid, so I’ve never really looked forward to it,” Kevin says. “For some reason everyone thinks independence is cool, but when I look back to being 8 years old, I could go out, ride my bike, have fun all day, come home to a nice warm dinner, take a bath, hug my mom, and then do it all over again the next day. Adults have bills to pay.”

Kevin only recently began considering the possibility of a future outside the routine comfort and security of his mother’s home and the familiar surroundings of his school. It wasn’t until his involvement with the Kennedy Krieger High School’s work-based learning program that he imagined life as an independent adult and realized that it was something he not only could do, but had to.

On-the-Job Learning

Starting their freshman year, Kennedy Krieger high school students embark on a four-year program that begins by exploring different vocations, then declaring a major, and, finally, participating in work-based learning opportunities, whether in one of several school-run businesses or, the best case scenario, an actual internship outside the perimeters of the high school’s Greenspring Campus. Selected from one of five industries—information technology, hospitality and tourism, manufacturing and construction, horticulture, or retail and consumer services—a student’s major stays with him throughout his education and plays a significant role in the curriculum. The goal is that, upon graduation, students emerge from high school with training in his or her vocation of choice, and, ideally, prepared to work and earn a living, though some still require substantial support and guidance in some form or another.

“One of the biggest goals for those of us in special education is to prepare these students for transition out of high school, into the community and workforce,”says assistant principal Shanna Pool, “the key is to consider their individual strengths and potential needs, which may be related to a disabling condition, and use that information to develop training opportunities in school to assist these students in reaching their full potential.”

Kevin at the ComputerOne former student in Kennedy Krieger’s retail industry, for instance, showed a keen aptitude for customer service, Pool says, an interest that was nutured into a marketable skill at Port Discovery Children’s Museum.

For Kevin, the best fit turned out to be information technology. He likes computers and the somewhat predictable, cause-and-effect nature of them. “When you click a button, something happens, and it happens for an exact reason,” he told the National Public Radio (NPR) program, “All Things Considered.” The NPR program featured Kevin during a show about Kennedy Krieger’s work-based learning program and its success in helping students with disabilities to develop skills and, subsequently, a brighter future.

“With computers,” Kevin explained, “there’s no guesswork.” Because he has autism, he says, computers are sometimes easier to read than people.

From Classwork to Career Work

It makes sense. Social interaction—particularly difficulties reading social cues—is a common challenge for people with autism. It’s also a huge hurdle in finding and retaining a job, starting with the job interview.

Often awkward under the best of circumstances, job interviews become even more difficult when a job candidate has a disability that prevents him from easily conversing and interacting with employers and peers. Kevin, for instance, struggled during his own interview with the Baltimore nonprofit Parks and People Foundation, where he was applying to do an IT internship during his senior year. “In school Kevin had plenty of things to say, and he’s very articulate,” Pool says, “but when he got in front of a potential employer he seemed unsure of himself and had very little to say, only answering questions with a yes or no.”

Pool attended the interview with Kevin, providing the cues and guidance he needed to describe the hands-on experience he received as an information technology major and to give the kinds of comprehensive answers future employers look for during an inerview. “Next time he goes to an interview, he’ll be able to take that experience with him.” she says.

In the end, Kevin got the internship. Within a few weeks, his supervisor and teachers found he needed little assistance or guidance during his work day, and Kevin was working without a Kennedy Krieger staff member by his side. In the process, he became a valuable member of the Parks and People team. “Usually, the best you can hope for when you put a student in work-based learning is that they’ll be successful,” Ryland says. “But to find that they’ll actually be an asset to the company they’re placed with? It’s ideal, but not expected. Kevin really proved himself there.”

What Comes Next?

Now, having graduated from high school in May 2010, Kevin is preparing to take classes at a local community college. Eventually, he sees himself moving out of his mother’s house, working, and possibly pursuing his master’s degree. It’s a decision his family supports, particularly his mother.

“As a parent, you’re always worried about your child being vulnerable, so we need to be certain he’s able to handle situations on his own, even situations he’s never experienced before,” explains Kevin’s mother, Jennifer Sargeant.

“Right now, I don’t know that he’s 100 percent there, but he’s definitely on the road, and he’s willing to work on what he needs to in order to be independent.”

Of course, there are still challenges, Kevin says. “I’m still trying to figure out certain things, especially social cues, like why people do certain things, and what they mean when they do.”

Still, he’s come a long way.

Ryland remembers an incident during Kevin’s senior year that showed just how far his student has come. That morning, one of his classmates—a girl—was visibly upset, but would speak to no one about what was troubling her. “Kevin went and sat next to her, and he said, ‘If you need anything, I’m here for you.’”

It was an action that in a typical classroom might be viewed as kind, but unextraordinary. But for a student with Asperger’s, who struggles with social interaction, it showed amazing perception and progress.

Kevin at GraduationIt turned out the girl was having troubles at home. She’d been up all night, Ryland recalls, distraught and hurting. “But Kevin talked to her and actually made her feel better. As a freshman, he wouldn’t have even noticed. Back then, he was only worried about Kevin. Now, he was able to see her, see that she was upset, and comfort her. That’s huge.”

It’s also indicative of the future Kevin sees for himself. While he excels in IT work, Kevin has goals beyond computers. “I want to study psychology,” he says. “My friends call me the therapist, because they come to me when they have a problem. Everyone has problems in their life and needs someone to talk to.”

He wants to work with grown-ups, he says. Most of all, he wants to help people the way he’s been helped. “Seven years ago,” he says, “you’d never have guessed I’d be here now.”