Monday, November 8, 2010

University of Arizona opens its doors to intellectually disabled students through new certificate program

From The Arizona Daily Star:

The first generation of special-education students with individualized learning plans that allowed them to be included in high school classrooms is graduating.

Now they have a new option: college.

Beginning next summer, Tucson students with intellectual disabilities can attend a University of Arizona (pictured) certificate program.

They'll get help paying for college and support for the transition to college life.

This new effort is called Project FOCUS (Focusing Opportunities with Community and University Support). It's about academic learning, the campus social experience and skills for independent work and living.

The U.S. Department of Education is funding it with $2.5 million over five years as one of 27 model projects nationwide. Partners in the effort are the Tucson Unified School District and the UA's College of Education.

The UA has long had special resources for disabled students on campus, "but now we're talking about students with more significant types of intellectual disabilities to have the same opportunities, to be on campus, to enroll in a class, and to be part of the University of Arizona community," said Dan Perino, who leads the Tucson Unified School District's Community Transition Programs.

And that's a real first for Tucson students, he said.

The program won't start until summer, but Tucson families already are changing their expectations about sending their disabled children to college.

Steve Cox, whose 20-year-old son has Asperger syndrome, always thought his son would go to college after Rincon High School, but he hadn't quite figured out how to make it work.

"There are lots of educational opportunities at the U of A that he could take advantage of," Cox said, "but he does need quite a bit more support than what other kinds of kids need."

Cathy Sweeney said she wishes the program had been around when her daughter graduated from Sahuaro High School.

Her daughter Kelly, 27, has Down syndrome, and she was included in regular high school classes, usually with an introductory message to the class from her mom.

Kelly wanted to go to college along with her peers, maybe to study art, but she didn't want her mom talking to her classes anymore, and she had a bad experience when she tried a community college class.

"That's why I'm so excited for this program," Cathy Sweeney said. "It's just exactly what we could have used as a family."

Kelly is experiencing campus life in an office job at the UA, but she talks about going back to college.

"These students coming out of high school are going to have the support to make this dream a reality," Cathy Sweeney said.

Project FOCUS evolved from TUSD's Community Transition Programs, which help young adults move on from the extra support they receive in high school to life as a working adult.

About 6,000 students districtwide have intellectual disabilities, said Perino, with the TUSD transition programs.

Options after high school are limited for many, said Stephanie MacFarland, from the UA Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies.

"There is a lack of services once they leave the public school system," she said.

The young adults might struggle with work or might not enter the work force at all, instead choosing a group day-care program.

College is a new option for a few.

Next summer, 10 students ages 18 to 21 will participate in orientation and take a class about life at the UA.

Then next fall, the students will take classes part time, with a scholarship paying for half of the classes in that first semester.

What classes they take in the two-year program is up to the students, MacFarland said, but they'd ideally be linked to a job path.

Up to 50 students will participate over five years.