PHILADELPHIA — Emily Scott has been part of the West Chester University family for a long time.
In her first year of life, West Chester students learning about child development regularly visited Emily and her twin sister, Elizabeth, at the family home in East Goshen Township. At age 3, Emily took swimming classes on campus. She’s since participated in nutrition, fitness, and dance programs.
So when it came time to think about college, West Chester was the logical choice. But Emily has Down syndrome, and the state university she had grown to love had no place for her or others like her.
That changes this fall. Emily and one young man will become the first full-time students with intellectual disabilities at West Chester.
And with that move, West Chester reflects what has been an exponential growth in such college offerings. In 2004, there were just 25, according to Think College, a federally funded center that tracks, supports, and advocates for programs. This fall, 270 colleges will welcome students with intellectual disabilities.
Some allow students to live on campus. Most have only a few dozen or fewer students and don’t award degrees, although some offer certificates. Students audit regular university classes, sit with other students, receive support from peer mentors and university advisers, and participate in internships. They also, advocates say, experience college life and the social interaction and maturation that comes with it.
“We want to provide them with the opportunities that everyone else has, with support,” said Monica Lepore, an adapted physical-education professor and co-director of West Chester’s RAM (Real Achievement Matters) Initiative.
There’s no question that figuring out how to include students who have an IQ of 70 or lower in a college classroom takes work. While critics have questioned whether college is right for all and whether some students might be better served and their tuition dollars better spent on job training, proponents argue that college should be an option.
“I’m not saying everyone with an intellectual disability has to go to college,” said Debra Hart, director of education and transition at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. “The choice should be there.”
Better job prospects
The growth comes thanks to more federal and state funding and a 2008 law that gave students with intellectual disabilities access to postsecondary financial aid. It also stems from research that shows students with such disabilities who attend college are more likely to get jobs than their peers who don’t.
The national employment rate for adults with cognitive disabilities is less than 25 percent, while 61 percent of such students who attended the college programs were employed one year later, according to Think College.
By law, school districts are required to provide educational services to students with disabilities into their early 20s. And other training programs exist.
Most of the college programs serve students 18 to 24 and are two years long, though Temple University, which has had a program for 13 years, has expanded to four. Most are aided by college students, who serve as mentors and coaches. Many receive far more applications than they can accommodate.
“There aren’t many options for people after they leave high school,” said Kathy Miller, director of community services at the Institute on Disabilities at Temple, who oversees its program. “We’ll interview 50 students for 10 slots.”
Other Philadelphia-area colleges with programs or pilots include Arcadia University, Drexel University, Rowan College at Gloucester County, the College of New Jersey, Camden County College and the University of Delaware.
Some students pay full tuition. Many seek to use Medicaid waiver funds. For programs certified as Comprehensive Transition Programs, such as West Chester’s and Temple’s, students can seek federal Pell grants or work-study funds. Costs vary. Temple’s program costs $20,552 annually, while West Chester’s is about $10,110.
West Chester received a $60,000 grant to start its program from the DREAM Partnership, based in Camp Hill. The group was founded in 2013 by Donna Partin, owner of a Merry Maids franchise and mother of a daughter with Down syndrome.
DREAM Partnership, which gets money from foundations, private donations and the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, has funded start-up, technical support and scholarships to more than a half-dozen schools, including Pennsylvania State University-Harrisburg, where Partin’s daughter is enrolled.
Based on the growing need, the partnership wants to add more schools, including a community college and technical college. “Parents are really demanding more,” said executive director Sherri Landis.
Off to college
In a West Chester T-shirt, Emily visited campus last week to register for fall classes and plan for freshman orientation this summer.
“Come prepared,” her adviser, Courtney Lloyd, told her. “Most students don’t even bring a pen.”
Emily looked shocked.
“Right. I thought so, too,” Lloyd said.
Lepore, the co-director of the program, has taught at West Chester since 1983 and first met Emily when she and her sister came to campus for swim lessons at 3. Emily returned at age 11 and began participating in Special Olympics and adapted fitness programs that pair West Chester students with children who have disabilities. She has also spent time in the nutrition lab learning the basics of food safety and cooking.
After high school, Emily attended three years of programming offered by the West Chester Area School District, including employment and life-skills training. Then, when her sister Elizabeth was a sophomore at the University of South Carolina and other peers were off to college, Emily started expressing the same goal.
Then other Special Olympians echoed that sentiment, recalled Lepore. “I guess we’d better start thinking about doing something,” she said she thought.
When Emily, now 21, got her class schedule last week, she couldn’t stop staring at it. “Oh, wow,” she said. She’ll take 12 credits, the same as a full-time student, with courses including nutrition, reading and study skills, disabilities studies and an internship.
She won’t be graded, but asked to attempt every assignment, with modifications by Lepore’s team. Instead of turning in a 25-paragraph essay, for instance, Emily might be asked to prepare a paper with 25 bullet points in full sentences.
For the first few weeks, a student mentor will accompany her to class but not sit with her. She’ll also take notes, then compare hers with Emily’s to help her digest the class.
Students and advisers in established programs say the promise is great.
“We have kids who go to parties, sleep over in friends’ dorm rooms, meet for dinner off campus,” said Jessica Mattis, director of Arcadia’s program, which started in 2013.
Students who graduated there a year ago are all employed, working at day-care centers and restaurants, a gym, and a horse farm.
Temple’s Academy for Adult Learning, which started in 2006, has graduated 101 students and 60 percent landed jobs, said Miller, the director.
A few, including Shawn Aleong, 30, of Philadelphia, did so well that they pursued a full degree, she said. “The day he got there, he just never looked back,” said his mother, Janice Wertz.
Aleong, who has cerebral palsy with an intellectual disability, is now enrolled as a legal-studies major at Temple’s business school.
“Because of the academy, all of my dreams are coming true,” said Aleong, who hopes to become a civil rights lawyer. “It let me know that even though I have a disability, I can still be successful.”
Emily also has career goals: After West Chester, she wants to dance or act or work in a restaurant, she said.
In the meantime, she said, “I want to be successful and independent and get good grades and be with my peers.”