For four years, Janet Mino has worked with her young men, preparing them to graduate from JFK High School, a place that caters to those with special needs in the heart of one of the poorest cities in America, Newark, N.J.
Mino, a whirling dervish of enthusiasm and warmth, is the subject of a documentary, "Best Kept Secret," that recently premiered at the Independent Film Festival in Boston and will be shown at this weekend's Montclair Film Festival in New Jersey.
Mino's efforts to find resources for her students are Herculean in a school that is touted as the state's "best kept secret." Her efforts are exacerbated by poverty and lack of funding, but her classroom is a happy place as she finds ways to reinforce that they are capable and worthy.
Director Samantha Buck ["21 Below"] and producer Danielle DiGiacomo, who is manager of video distribution at the Orchid, follow Mino and her students in their hardscrabble lives for 18 months leading up to their 2012 graduation.
"Autism is part of who we are as a society," said Buck, 30. "Across the country, young adults who turn 21 are pushed out of the school system. They often end up with nowhere to go; they simply disappear from productive society. This is what educators call 'falling off the cliff.'"
This year alone, 50,000 children with autism will turn 18, according to Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who has sponsored federal legislation to provide funding for adult programs. Within two years of high school, less than half of those with autism spectrum disorder have paying jobs, the lowest rate of any disabled group.