Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Idaho college program serves people with Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities

From The AP:

NAMPA, Idaho — The College of Western Idaho is offering two new classes that cater specifically to students with Down syndrome or other developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Administrators say the classes put the Nampa-based community college among other postsecondary institutions taking part in a nationwide movement to give these students a chance to pursue education and job training after high school.

For now, CWI is offering a class in American sign language and art as part of its new IDream program, which stands for Intellectual Disabilities Reaching, Educating and Achieving More.

Advocates say the value of the program is more than academics — giving a new group of students the chance to experience the challenge, atmosphere and responsibilities of college life.

"Their eyes are lit up when they tell us they're going to college," said Joyce Page, whose daughter, Becky, is enrolled in the program at CWI. "It's not just about the academic; it's about them feeling more normal."

IDream has its roots in an initiative promoted by the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Researchers at the institute say there are more than 250 programs across 41 states offering postsecondary education to those diagnosed with developmental or intellectual disabilities.

Debra Hart, director of the Education and Transition Team for the institute, has been working to develop these new programs and overcome skepticism for more than 12 years.

"Initially, people looked at me like I had three heads and spoke a different language than they did," Hart said.

She says the IDream programs should take full advantage of the college life and atmosphere and avoid separating the students with developmental disabilities from the traditional college curriculum.

With the support of counselors, tutors and teachers, Hart says these students can be successful in a college atmosphere — and she's got students who have enjoyed success to prove her point.

"Now, there's more and more students who can be the ambassadors for this than we had before," Hart said.

Joyce Page helped CWI get the program started after attending a national Down syndrome convention in California last year and learning about postsecondary education options.

Initially, CWI intended to start six classes, but scaled back when enrollment failed to support all six.

But future growth faces some challenges, according to Barb Case, director of Community Education at CWI. Case says a lack of available classroom space and funding are just two hurdles complicating short-term growth in the program.

"A lot of these programs take place in well-established institutions," she said. "We're not in a position right now to put something like that together."