Fostering college hopes

Success: An HCC program helps high school students with disabilities get higher education.

April 20, 2003|By Nancy Knisley | Nancy Knisley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

An unusual program at Howard Community College is helping students with learning or physical disabilities move successfully from high school to college -- and then stay in college once they make the transition.

Begun in 1997 by Linda Schnapp, now assistant director of the program, Project Access reaches out to students who, despite their strengths, may not have been seen as "college material" by high school teachers and counselors who directed them more toward employment after graduation.

"I eventually realized that these students were coming in, then dropping out," Schnapp said. "While they had their instructional needs met in high school, they came to college without the basic knowledge needed to be successful."

Project Access is designed to address those issues.

To help high school students with disabilities prepare for college, Project Access offers an annual Summer Institute, a four-week summer program providing intense individual instruction in reading, writing, math, study skills and self-advocacy.

"Students are not always thrilled with four more weeks of school, but they become connected during the program and come back for more," Schnapp said.

And the program provides year-round tutoring and peer mentoring by successful college students with disabilities and sponsors social events at HCC throughout the year.

Schnapp came up with the idea after five years of working with HCC students with a range of disabilities -- primarily learning disabilities but also physical disabilities, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other issues.

In high school, Schnapp said, such students may not have been encouraged to take the most demanding academic classes or challenged to put forth their best effort. Those who enrolled in college often lacked adequate study skills and didn't know how to do the independent work college demands.

In addition, these students were unprepared to be advocates for themselves to obtain the educational supports and accommodations to which they were legally entitled in college. And they were socially isolated, lonely and lacking the self-confidence to reach out to other students.

Project Access has had a positive effect for students such as Latishia Matthews, 18.

Matthews, a Columbia resident who has a learning disbility, acknowledged she was less than happy when she learned that her foster mother had enrolled her in the Summer Institute. "I didn't want to come," she recalled. "I thought, `I just got out of school, why do I have more school?' But I benefited."

Matthews, who attended the summer program twice, says she was surprised to discover that the classes weren't the motivational lectures she had expected and that they really helped her improve her study skills and gain self-confidence.

"The best thing about Project Access," she said, "was that they made you feel like a college student." And the worst? "They wouldn't let me come back for a third year," she said with a smile.

Although Matthews said that a state agency "wouldn't fund college for me because they told me I wouldn't succeed," she is doing well in her classes at HCC, where she is working toward a certificate in early childhood education.

Sterling Saunders, 24, a business management student at HCC, said that he would "probably still be pushing carts at BJ's" if it were not for Project Access and Darryl Allen, a counselor in HCC's Office of Student Support Services.

Saunders, who has cerebral palsy, said that when he was in high school he had planned to go to college, even though he wasn't on a college track.

"I was encouraged to go to college for a while, then later people talked about a job," he said. So, after graduation, he found a job and forgot college.

Allen, who taught at Hammond High School when Saunders was a student there, ran into him at BJ's, pushing carts. "I knew he had potential beyond just getting out there working," Allen said. "He had a great mind, but he had to get around his physical disability."

To prompt Saunders to reconsider the idea of college, Allen told Saunders that he wouldn't say "hi" to him anymore at BJ's until Saunders enrolled in Project Access -- and was true to his word. Saunders, by nature a friendly young man, eventually was persuaded to enroll in the Summer Institute.

"Project Access helped me not to worry about college. It helped with my self-confidence," Saunders said. "I learned to socialize."

"I didn't like having to do more work at first," he said, "but I changed my mind."

Saunders said that he would encourage other students to attend Project Access because the program "gives you more of a feel early how college is and will be when you get here."

Schnapp said that, over the years, Project Access has had many success stories, with participants who once were not viewed as "college material" going on to do well at HCC, other community colleges or four-year schools, then moving on to successful careers.

She said that she would like all students with disabilities who are capable of college work to have that kind of success.

"Students who don't go to college are limiting their potential, lifestyle and life," she said

To raise funds for the program and at the same time further its mission, Project Access on Thursday will hold its first conference for parents and professionals, "Transitioning the High School Student with Disabilities to the Postsecondary Level." It featured keynote speaker Robert Pasternack, U.S. assistant secretary of special education and rehabilitative services. The conference will be held on the HCC campus.

Information about the conference: 410-772-4625, or visit the conference Web site: www. access/default.cfm.

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