Transitioning Students With Disabilities
Grassroots efforts spur moves into college and career for students with autism and intellectual challenges
BY PAUL RIEDE/School Administrator, August 2018

Eric J. Hartz, director of Campus Connect in the Madison, Wis., Metropolitan School District, with two participating students.
When Sherry Elander took a job as a long-term substitute in the Westfield Public School District in western Massachusetts 19 years ago, she was assigned to a class of students with moderate to severe disabilities. They ranged in age from 14 to 21.

“I quickly realized that I had just walked into a very overwhelming world where people’s needs weren’t being met,” she says. “A 14-year-old’s and a 20-year-old’s needs are very different.”

Some of her fourth-year high school students would participate in schoolwide graduation ceremonies, but instead of moving on to new challenges like their same-age peers, they would return to the same classroom until they turned 22, when public schools are no longer required to provide services to students with disabilities.

Elander tried to expand the world of her students — especially the older ones — by collaborating with community agencies and businesses to get them involved in jobs and community service. There were successes, but it was a struggle.

Then, in 2007, Massachusetts established a grants program to help schools team with local colleges to build a postsecondary pathway for students with intellectual disabilities, or ID. Elander helped nearby Holyoke Community College land one of the first grants, enabling some of her students without high school diplomas to take college courses alongside their typical peers.

“Our first cohort of young people with intellectual disabilities, who never in their life would have had a chance to go to college, had this amazing opportunity,” she says. “They get the opportunity to be with their peers to experience life like you and I got to when we left our schools, and they’re blowing everybody away with what they are able to do.”

In 2017-18, 14 of the 28 students in Elander’s transition program, which serves students aged 18 through 21, took courses at area colleges.

A Civil Right
Elander’s journey in Westfield is emblematic of the efforts of educators across the country to expand the horizons of students with intellectual disabilities and autism during and after their high school years. Many educators, like Elander, see the work as a civil rights imperative.

Westfield’s initiative is one of the “tiny little pockets” of programs that have emerged to enroll students with ID in college courses over the past two decades, according to Meg Grigal, co-director of Think College, a national resource center for improving inclusive higher education options for people with intellectual disabilities. Often, these programs are cobbled together piece by piece by a few highly committed teachers or administrators.

“A lot of them were making it up on their own, and they need support, they need training, and there wasn’t a ton of guidance,” says Grigal, who is also senior research fellow at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where Think College resides. “I think now we’re a little more savvy.”

Think College has a growing database of 266 colleges across the country with programs for students with intellectual disabilities. That’s up from 25 in 2004. Just over 100 of those college programs serve dual-enrollment high school students.

Grigal points to the Massachusetts Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative, created in 2007, as a successful early effort to provide a support network for such programs. Thirteen colleges and universities are members, including Holyoke Community College and Westfield State University, which some of Elander’s students attend. Grigal also highlights the federal Transition Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities, or TPSID. The project’s national coordinating center is housed at Think College.

TPSID grew out of the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which authorized and funded it while making students with intellectual disabilities eligible for the first time for Pell grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants and the Federal Work-Study program.

In 2016-17, 25 TPSID grants of up to $500,000 a year went to demonstration projects at 46 colleges in 19 states, supporting 669 students.

A Think College study in 2017 found that 61 percent of a sampling of students with disabilities who completed a TPSID program the year before had a paid job a year after they left the program. That’s compared to 17 percent of adults with developmental disabilities in the general population in 2014-2015, the study said.

Hurdling Obstacles
Still, for many school districts across the country, providing postsecondary pathways for students with intellectual disabilities remains a halting, painstaking work in progress.

“I think we need lots of pathways and lots of options for every student, and right now we often have maybe one or two options for just a few students,” Grigal says. The primary obstacle to expanding those options is expectations.

“You can’t even get to the logistics if nobody believes it can happen,” she says. “If high school administrators and leaders in school systems don’t truly believe that these students can and should go to college, can and should work … it’s not going to happen.”

Grigal urges educators to build support by talking with students, families and school leaders about successful programs across the country. When they see they can have a profound impact on students’ lives, logistical and funding concerns become less daunting.

Elander’s experience is a case in point. She says raising expectations is a “slow and steady process,” but it is paying off. The school district is “150 percent” behind her program, says Westfield’s superintendent, Stefan Czaporowski. He sees it as part and parcel of the district’s ongoing effort to increase dual enrollment and other college credit opportunities for all of its 5,500 students.

“I actually think it’s going to grow, not just for that particular population, but for all of our population,” he says.

In a sense, the district is working to create its own demand for such programs by working with Lisa Dieker, an inclusive practices expert at the University of Central Florida. Dieker is helping Westfield’s schools shift the mindsets of teachers who, with the best of intentions, sometimes reinforce a sense of dependency in students.

“In the past, we have thought that they needed to be dependent or that we were helping them best by doing for them,” says Susan Dargie, Westfield’s director of curriculum and instruction. “As we see that shift happen, more and more of our students with disabilities will expect that they’re going to go to college with their peers because they’ve been learning right alongside them.”

‘It’s Just Amazing’
Among the success stories Elander can point to is Jamie Curran, who, as a teen beginning Elander’s program, lacked confidence and avoided talking to people who weren’t trusted friends. Her intellectual disability affects her memory and makes it challenging for her to read extensively and take tests. As she prepared to graduate from high school with an attendance certificate, she had no real plans for the future.

“I would have just left high school and sat at home, honestly,” she says.

Then her mother intervened and got her into Elander’s program, known as East Mountain Road, and her life changed. Instead of idling at home, she took classes with typical college students at Westfield State and worked part-time at the university. At first, a coach from East Mountain Road came to class with her to take notes and keep track of homework assignments. As her confidence grew, she began to go to classes on her own — and to see a future for herself.

Now a well-spoken 23-year-old, Curran works as a transition coach at East Mountain Road, helping students find their way, just as she did.

“I have my license, I have my car,” she says. “I have a full-time job and I’m speaking up for myself now. I’ve come a long way, so it’s just amazing.”

Putting It Together
Like Elander, Eric Hartz, a vocational transition teacher in the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin, helped build a dual enrollment program from the ground up. Campus Connect was conceived by a district administrative team working with teacher leaders, Madison College and county human services agencies to provide a new pathway for 18- to 21-year-olds in the school district’s transition program.

Hartz, whose doctorate in educational leadership focused on providing more postsecondary options to students with disabilities, was named coordinator.

Campus Connect initially targeted students with intellectual disabilities, but later opened to all interested students with individualized education plans. Twelve of the 28 students in the program last year had autism spectrum disorder.

Campus Connect provides on-campus counseling for students as well as tutoring services, help with scheduling and work opportunities. It also builds self-advocacy and self-determination skills. The students are eligible for accommodations in their college classes, such as note-takers or extended time during exams, but no modifications that would dilute the rigor of the course.

“It turns out that a lot of the students — in our school, it’s 80 percent — can pass college-level classes with some additional support and go on to get a certificate degree or a one-year degree,” Hartz says. “A small percentage can even go on to transfer to a four-year degree.”

The numbers are small, but Hartz is hoping to grow to 40 students by 2020-21 and to 100 eventually. The four traditional and three alternative high schools in Madison serve 1,305 students with disabilities.

The main obstacles at this point, Hartz says, are the extra space and staffing needed to expand. Up to now, the expenses have been covered by district-level special education funding. Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham says the program has resulted in “huge dividends” for students.

Far From Home
Amy Armstrong, project director of the Advancing Students Toward Education and Employment Program, or ASTEP, at Minot State University in North Dakota, faces an added obstacle in attracting students to her program. The university, which is in its second five-year round of federal TPSID funding, is the only program of its kind in the state, and some students must travel hours to get there.

Some families are hesitant to send their children that far from home to live in dorms with typical students. But Armstrong says that is changing as more people see how the students, with support from her staff and a phalanx of peer mentors, grow into more confident, independent adults by taking classes, working in inclusive paid internships and living with typical college students.

As in the Westfield program, students take fewer courses than typical students. Some audit courses while others take them for credit. Those on a two-year pathway finish with a college career certificate. Those on a three-year path can earn certificates in areas like child development, computer technology and reception services.

The program drew seven students this year, but Armstrong expects to have 18 this fall, with similar class sizes in the future.

“It’s taken this many years to have folks around the state understand a little better what we’re doing here,” she says. “They’re seeing the outcomes of other students who have attended.”

Promoting Opportunities
One of Armstrong’s part-time staff members in Minot travels the state, visiting high schools, easing fears and recruiting students with intellectual disabilities. Elander, too, takes responsibility for spreading the gospel, consulting with teachers, administrators, students and parents, reminding them that “transition starts at 14” — the notion that planning for a student’s postsecondary future should begin in 8th grade.

For all her successes, Elander says the struggle to provide equal opportunities feels as if “we’re still going upstream.”

Wider participation by postsecondary institutions would be a big boost. “There’s not capacity to have everybody who wants to do this yet because not all the colleges are doing it,” she says.

Putting all the pieces together in school districts, colleges and communities and keeping those pieces running smoothly is challenging but necessary, she says.

Her recipe for success?

“Being persistent, insistent and consistent,” she says. “Having a hard head. Knowing that these young people deserve the same opportunities in life that we’re all given. Thinking outside the box. Seeing your job as being partly a public relations person. Building community connections. Having people really learn to value all people.”

PAUL RIEDE is a freelance education writer in Syracuse, N.Y. Twitter: @PaulRiede

Additional Resources
School districts seeking to expand or improve their transition services for students with disabilities can consult a growing list of online resources. Here is a sampling:

» Think College, based at the University of Massachusetts Boston, focuses on sharing practices that open doors to higher education for students with intellectual disabilities. The website has a searchable directory of colleges that provide services to ID students along with tools and resources for transition services. Think College is also the national coordinating center for the federal TPSID program, which funds model demonstration programs across the country. The organization has published Think College!: Postsecondary Education Options for Students with Intellectual Disabilities.

» National Technical Assistance Center on Transition, or NTACT, is a federally funded organization that helps schools provide high-quality transition services to prepare students with disabilities for postsecondary education and employ-ment. Its website contains four resource sections for educators — transition services, graduation, postsecondary success, and data analysis and use — on effective practices.

» Association of Higher Education And Disability, or AHEAD, is a professional association for promoting equity for people with disabilities in higher education. Members are engaged in providing services, consultation and training, and developing policies on college campuses. AHEAD offers professional development workshops and webinars.

» National Center for College Students with Disabilities is a federally funded resource housed with AHEAD. It operates the NCCSD Clearinghouse and Resource Library, which catalogs resources for college students, students preparing to go to college, families of students, service providers, researchers and policymakers.

» Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights, or PACER, is a federally funded advocacy organization that provides resources to families and professionals to broaden educational opportunities for children with disabilities. Its website includes a section on transitioning to life after high school, with videos on self-advocacy, academic accommodations in college, assistive technology, disability rights and other topics.

» National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth, or NCWD/Youth, helps state and local workforce development systems better serve students with disabilities and other youths, while offering a raft of practical advice for youth, families, educators and policymakers. With funding from the U.S. Department of Labor, its website includes “Guideposts for Success” — markers to consider as students with disabilities pursue higher education or enter the workforce.

» Data and Resources to Inspire a Vision of Employment, or DRIVE, is a website launched in 2015 by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy to provide a national and state-by-state look at data, policies and practices related to improving employment opportunities for people with disabilities. It contains a profile of each state’s implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, particularly as it relates to people with disabilities. Specific information on school-to-work transition plans and other programs for students with disabilities is provided for each state.