Students with special needs may not have conventional college aspirations, but they, too, get a taste of the anticipation, elation and devastation at this time of year as their typical classmates consider the next phase of their lives.

High school hallways are abuzz as seniors rejoice over their college acceptance notifications. Parents of juniors are posting Facebook pictures of recruitment trips and campus tours. Guidance counselors are scheduling meetings to match students’ strengths and areas of interest with programs.

By law, students receiving special education services are eligible to remain in school until the year they turn 21. This allows for extended participation in the academic and social structure of school. Some parents opt to keep their child in school the allotted time, while others choose to have their son or daughter graduate with the student’s typical 12th-grade peers.

Eventually all students take that next step toward maturity. Options depend upon one’s status at graduation. If the student exits high school with a diploma, she is eligible for matriculated college programs depending on her interests and grades. If she graduates with one of the completion certificates, she might transition directly to a job.

Some young people with special needs will not graduate with a diploma but are interested in continuing their education with college experiences and classes. They have taken part in class projects, concerts, field trips and moving-up ceremonies. They view college as the next phase in their development.

The first step parents and caregivers need to take is to create a transition plan, preferably while their student is in high school. Transition planning should begin at age 14 with fine tuning by families, educators and Medicaid service coordinators (MSCs) as the student progresses. Collaboration between educational staff and MSCs is critical.

Focus should be on strengths and interests exhibited while still in high school. Are there electives in their area of interest? Can they job train at a work site that showcases skills while allowing for growth? Tweaking should be done year to year given opportunities in the community and at school.

If done properly, the student and his team should be on the same page regarding post-secondary school choice and placement. The student will know if he is interested in a day habilitation program, which provides assistance with self-help, socialization and job skills in a segregated setting. Or maybe he is leaning toward “self direction,” which supports community inclusion by allowing participants, along with their circle of support, to create an individualized program that encompasses their goals, pursuits and desires for the future. Or he may want some combination of the two.

Programs are funded through the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities Medicaid Waiver program. Parents who wish to find out if their student is eligible to receive services through the Medicaid waiver program can contact local service provider agencies such as AccessCNY, Advocates Inc. and Arise Inc., speak to their special education coordinator, or visit the agencies’ websites.

In Syracuse, Onondaga Community College and Syracuse University offer opportunities for students with special needs to attend classes and experience, at different levels, college life.

OCC currently has three options. Foundations is a three-year program for recent graduates or students who have aged out of high school. A day habilitation program consisting of full-time classes, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., five days a week, Foundations’ goal is to prepare the student for work or independent living within the community. Participants take classes in health and physical wellness, money management, interpersonal relationships and other life skills. The student will need to plan for adult life after her three years in Foundations ends.

OCC also offers College for Living evening and weekend classes. These are two-hour classes that run for 10 weeks each semester. Open to anyone looking to enroll, these classes are inclusive and offer topics such as crafting, basic sign language and aerobics. OCC has also begun offering classes during the day each semester for those students on the Medicaid waiver who do not attend a day program and are not working. They are supplemental day habilitation classes that focus on independence and relationship skills.

OCC’s New Visions Summer Program is a weeklong “full-time” college experience for students with intellectual disabilities. It is funded as a day habilitation program through the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities. Student must be at least 20 years old (preferably 21) and on the Medicaid waiver. Students live on campus, sleep in air-conditioned residence halls, and integrate with other summer school students. Classes are provided during the day, with social activities in the evenings. After a week of course work, the experience culminates with a prom and graduation ceremony.

“The New Visions program gives students of all ages with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to go to college just like their siblings, family and friends,” says Amy Mech, director for College Living at OCC. “They benefit from being away from home and trying new things. Many come back year after year, as do the staff that work with them for the week.”

This year Syracuse University piloted InclusiveU through the Lawrence B. Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education and in conjunction with SU’s University College. The program allows students to take five classes in a concentrated area over four years. Students choose classes that are of interest to them. They also learn self-advocacy skills, how to work with disability services, and about their rights as a student on a college campus. InclusiveU students are able to participate in clubs and activities that are open to the student body. A certificate from University College is awarded when their coursework is complete.

Assistance is given with coordination of Medicaid services and the participants’ self- directed plan to provide one-to-one support if needed, as well as registering, scheduling, modifications within classes and coordination with professors.

“Syracuse University is dedicated to the creation of opportunities in higher education for students with intellectual disabilities, and to see those students achieve their higher educational goals,” says Bud Buckout, associate director of the Taishoff Center and director of InclusiveU. “We want them not just to have an ‘experience’ of higher education but to be an active participant and included in the campus community.”

Keep in mind that most colleges and universities allow students to audit, or possibly take for credit, certain classes with the professor’s approval. The caregiver or student needs to contact the disability service coordinator at the chosen institution. Depending on the situation, the participant could either pay privately or use self-direction funds through the individual’s Medicaid waiver.

Learning does not need to end with high school. Options are available to students with special needs. College is not just about where you go and what you learn, it is about the connections you make and the experience you gain. The key is for families to work with their student’s educators and support agencies to create a plan embracing the present and looking toward the future.

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