Monday, July 21, 2008

Community college program for people with developmental disabilities floundering?

Inside Higher Ed has an article July 21 about Bellevue Community College's Venture program, which was begun at the college near Seattle in 2005 and touted as the nation’s first degree program for developmentally disabled students. (Its curriculum is depicted in the graphic above.)

Inside Higher Ed reports:

Heralded as a modern-day extension of the civil rights movement, the pioneering degree program for developmentally disabled students at Bellevue Community College has a loyal fan base and a history of great press. But some parents — and a former instructor at the college — now say there have been efforts to force out students who face some of the biggest challenges.

Officials at the college, which is based near Seattle, Wash., deny that students are being weeded out of the program. They are, however, studying the possibility of creating an additional non-degree program — an apparent acknowledgment that the degree program the college has prided itself on isn’t a fit for some of the students who were admitted.

Bellevue has never claimed that its “Venture Program” is for everyone. Accredited in 2006, the first-of-its-kind associate degree program targets “high functioning” developmentally disabled students who can work at a minimum of the fourth-grade level in academic courses. According to the college’s Web site, students also “typically” have an IQ of 70 or above — a criterion that would exclude a significant swath of the cognitively disabled population

But even given its stated standards, Venture has been touted for giving students with a broad range of disabilities, including Down Syndrome, a chance to earn college degrees. There is some growing concern, however, about whether that promise has been kept.

According to parents interviewed for this article, most of whom asked not to be identified, the program hasn’t accepted a student with Down’s since 2004. Furthermore, a former teacher says he felt pressured to build a case against students who were performing academically but difficult to teach.

Marty Bucher, who taught work force classes for Venture, said he witnessed a philosophy becoming “ingrained” in the program that he summed up this way: “These [students] have these problems, they’re not real easy to work with, so let’s find ways to push them out of the program,” he said. “A lot of parents were concerned about that, and should have been.”

Bucher says four to five students, who were performing satisfactorily in academic courses, were “targeted” by program administrators for removal. He recalls a specific instance where he says he was urged by higher ups to help get rid of a problem student.

“I was pressured to say [a student] was close to getting violent, and that would have torpedoed him out of the program,” Bucher said. “The fact was, he wasn’t close to getting violent.”

Bucher’s contract was not renewed by the program’s prior director, who has since resigned amid complaints about her leadership. But Bucher says he would have left the program anyway because of his concerns, and one of the students’ parents suggested he was a victim of retaliation.

“He wasn’t supporting their effort to get rid of some of the students they wanted to get rid of,” said the parent, who asked not be identified for fear that it could complicate her child’s future in Venture.

Venture officials say there has been no effort to weed out difficult students. Asked if students who were performing academically had been targeted as some have suggested, a Bellevue spokesman said “categorically, no.” The spokesman said he did not know if any students with Down Syndrome had been admitted in the last four years.