College Bound:

January 17, 2013

Jayme Finstein and Daniel T.S. Heffernan

Perhaps there has been no greater sense of being “left behind” or “left out” for high school students with Down syndrome than when their peers become seemingly all consumed with college in junior year. For our children, college was something that few dared to dream about. However, the improvement in the education of children with disabilities has led to an expectation of a more meaningful and fulfilling post-high school life. More and more opportunities for students with Down syndrome to attend college have sprung up and offer myriad models for college careers.

Several laws have helped develop some of these opportunities. When the cornerstone federal statute, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, was reauthorized in 2004, it and resulting regulations emphasized successful transition to post-school life as an important goal of the education of children with special needs. A crucial component of the transition planning that school districts must begin when the student turns fourteen years old is the post-school vision. Transition services are to be coordinated, results oriented, and based on the individual student’s strengths, preferences and interests. Where appropriate, therefore, there is no barrier to have college as the post-high school vision for a student with Down syndrome.

Because students with disabilities are entitled to special education services until they graduate from high school or turn twenty-two, one model provides for the student with Down syndrome to attend college while still eligible for special education services from his or her town. Services such as education coaches, travel training, tutoring and other supports can be incorporated into IEPs to allow students to attend college. One superb example of partnership between school districts and Massachusetts community colleges has been the Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Program (“ICE”). The state-funded ICE discretionary grant pilot program began developing new partnerships between high schools and public institutions of higher education in 2007. This program offers students with intellectual disabilities, ages 18-22, who have not passed MCAS, or 20-21 year olds who have passed MCAS but are still receiving special education services, the opportunity to participate in inclusive college courses. MassBay Community College, along with five other community college partnerships across Massachusetts, has been offering students with intellectual disabilities this unique opportunity to participate in an inclusive college experience with the necessary supports and services as determined by the college and school district. Through this program, students learn to function independently on the college campus, use self-determination skills in adult settings, learn content area skills, and request accommodations and other services at the college. Students are also developing career-planning and employment skills, self-advocacy skills, and new life skills that will assist them in their post-secondary interests and activities. Although the five-year grant pilot program for ICE is ending, many of the partnerships plan to sustain these programs on their campuses so that college is still a viable option for students with intellectual disabilities. MassBay will begin its own Transitional Scholars Pilot Program for the Fall 2011 semester. The vision is for the program to grow to include even more comprehensive services such as a program certificate, scholarships, job development, and an internships.

Another model is for students with Down syndrome to attend college independent of their local school districts. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), were both enacted to level the playing field by eliminating barriers to full participation by people with disabilities in our society. Section 504 calls for colleges to make reasonable accommodations to allow students with disabilities to meaningfully participate. Such reasonable accommodations include extra time for tests, scribes, textbooks online, and permission to tape classes. Technological advances, such as speech recognition and other software, also have helped students with Down Syndrome successfully attend college.

Many colleges now have offices and programs supporting students with disabilities. Colleges offer services to all students with a documented disability through their campus Disability Resources Office. Students do not have the framework of the IEP process in college. Instead, students need to seek out services, show proof of a disability with the proper paperwork, and register with the Disability Office to receive the appropriate accommodations. This “self-advocating” is often a new concept for students entering college. Various colleges in Massachusetts have specially designed programs that serve students with specific needs with services that go beyond those offered by the Disability Office on campus. The Threshold Program at Lesley University, The Transition Program at Middlesex Community College, and Project Forward at Cape Cod Community College are three of the programs offered at colleges in the state to students who have graduated from high school or who have aged out of services from the district. Massachusetts is leading the charge in creating post-secondary options for students with intellectual disabilities across the country. College is now, more than ever before, a real option for students with Down syndrome, and why shouldn’t it be?

Daniel T.S. Heffernan, Esq. is a partner at Kotin Crabtree and Strong, LLP in Boston, Massachusetts. He concentrates his practice in representing families in special education and civil rights matters. From 1995 to 2007, Dan served as president of the board of directors of The Federation For Children with Special Needs. His son, Brian, who is twenty years old and has Down syndrome, currently attends Massachusetts Bay Community College through the Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Program (ICE). In 2002 Dan and his wife, Julie, received the Dr. Allen C. Crocker Award of Excellence by the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress. He writes and lectures frequently on special education law and advocacy. Dan can be reached at dheffernan@kcslegal.com.

Jayme Finstein is the Coordinator of the Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Program (soon to be, Transitional Scholars Pilot Program) at MassBay Community College in Wellesley, MA. She focuses her work on developing ways to give students with intellectual disabilities every opportunity at the college level to be fully included, to achieve their goals and to be successful members of society. She hopes for the day that students with intellectual disabilities will be included in all institutions of high education across the country. Jayme can be reached at jfinstein@massbay.edu.

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