Disabled students prepare for college Summer program teaches them skills, how to get help

July 31, 1998|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

Robert Gongora, an incoming senior at Columbia's Long Reach High School, said he learned one of the most important lessons of his life in a special summer school at Howard Community College last year -- he discovered he had a learning )) disorder and what he could do about it.

The Human Development summer school class "taught us new things we haven't learned about ourselves," he said. "I realized my learning disability." Gongora was able to go from a below-par grade point average to a high B+ in one year, putting him on the honor roll for the first time.

Gongora, who found the class so valuable that he is taking it again this summer, is one of 70 mostly junior and senior high school students participating in Howard Community College's Project Access, designed to teach students with learning and physical disabilities the basic skills they will need in college, including how to find the resources that are available to them.

Though the program -- now in its second year -- lasts for a year, much of its focus is on the four-week summer school session, which graduates its class today.

"Too many teachers have a tendency to look at kids with a disability and not look at them," said Linda Schnapp, the program's director. "We -- in four weeks -- to some degree are trying to remediate what they have been told all their lives."

The program tries to address a national problem -- a high dropout rate among students with disabilities. Only 12 percent of students with learning and/or physical disabilities complete post-secondary study.

Knowing their resources

Schnapp believes the reason is they don't know what resources are available to them.

Erin Kinsey, an 18-year-old participant from Baltimore County, said she learned she could use a tape recorder in the classroom or ask for a tutor to address her disability, attention deficit disorder. She is planning to attend Carroll Community College next month.

"I would have known about some of the resources but not how to get them," she said. "I learned I can get around my disability and that I will make it through college."

John Claytor, a 17-year-old senior at Hammond High School who also has attention deficit disorder, said he will ask for unlimited time when taking tests.

"Usually, I am very well-spoken, but it takes me time to get off the ground," he said.

A 1996 Project Access study found that about 16 percent of Howard County's secondary school students have a learning or physical disability.

Debra Price-Ellingstad, education program specialist for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs, which funds Project Access, said that in high school counselors seek out students with learning disabilities. Treatment is available through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which funds any special equipment or teaching the students may need.

But once these students graduate -- or turn 22 -- they are no longer covered by that act. As Price-Ellingstad explained, the students' civil rights are still protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but there is no funding tied to that statue so there are no counselors seeking them out.

The Americans with Disabilities Act "puts the burden on universities to pay for the services [these students] need," Price-Ellingstad said. But, she added, students "have to self-identify" to receive funding.

Higher dropout rate

In many cases, she said, students do not know how to do this, and the result has been the higher dropout rate for students with disabilities.

During the four weeks of summer school, students in the program take five courses designed to teach them how to get the assistance they need while learning how to write a college essay, math skills, how to use e-mail and the Internet, time management and about their disability. Throughout the rest of the year, college officials recruit students, follow up on past students and plan for the summer school.

'One purpose'

"Everything we do has one purpose -- to get them ready for college," Schnapp said. "The kids have to learn the appropriate way to ask" about college resources.

Every Friday, the students travel to a Maryland college and meet with admissions officials.

Howard Community College was one of about 90 schools to apply for the program, which is awarded to about 14 community colleges every year. The college received $321,000 in 1996 to run the program for three years, though college officials say the actual cost is closer to $450,000.

Identifying a need

"What we look for [when giving out these grants] is someone who knows the research and then develops a model for that area," said Price-Ellingstad. Howard Community College "identified a need in the existing area."

Howard Community College officials say universities and employers have a lot to gain by investing in these students.

"The few thousand dollars we spend is well worth it for the benefits," said Janice Marks, the college's director for academic support and career services. When the disabled are unemployed, "everyone ends up paying for it."

Gongora's objective is to keep his grades high enough so he can play on next year's soccer team. Now, he tells teachers he needs unlimited time to take a test. During finals last year, one teacher refused, but Gongora made her wait.

"Some teachers don't want to take the time to help us," said Gongora, who got a B on that final. "But [now] I force them to."

Pub Date: 7/31/98

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