Elmhurst College: The ELSA Experience

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The ELSA Experience

It happened six years ago and lasted only a moment, but was so humiliating that even now, Kari Winter can recall it only tearfully. She was a senior at Downers Grove South High School, sitting in the crowded auditorium during an assembly about life after high school.

The woman at the microphone shouted out to the students, “Who here is going to college? Everyone going to college, stand up!”

Winter jumped to her feet. Her classroom aide, embarrassed, told her to sit down and be quiet. She refused. “I wanted to tell her … I wanted to … I just kept standing,” she says. “I’m proud that I didn’t give in.”

But she was shaken. Her twin sister, Kristin, was at the assembly too, and also had stood up. When they told their mother what had happened, Nancy Winter was angry, but not surprised. Knowing how much the girls loved school, their parents talked to them all the time about going to college one day. But “people thought we were nuts,” Nancy Winter says bluntly.

Kari and Kristin Winter are developmentally disabled, and few believed anything resembling college would be reasonable for them or anyone like them. “My husband and I were really big into the whole experience of college,” Nancy Winter says, “but teachers would keep telling us it was about jobs, not academics. It was like they’d given up on them.”    

Sure enough, as the Winter sisters approached the end of high school and the start of their transition into the adult world, they researched their options and saw how few there were. A nearby community college offered some courses in basic job skills, but there wasn’t much in the way of other kinds of support. A program at a downstate college was popular, but it was only nine months long and unexpectedly fell to budget cuts. What few programs were available were largely vocational, focusing on independent-living skills and job training in areas like food service and horticulture—areas in which the Winters had no interest.

Then they heard about the Elmhurst Learning and Success Academy, which had just opened its doors.

First in the region to offer federal aid
When ELSA welcomed its first class in the fall of 2005, it was the first of its kind in Illinois, and one of only a few similar programs in the country. The four-year, full-time certificate program enables students with developmental and intellectual disabilities to pursue post-secondary education on the campus of a liberal-arts college, to contribute to campus life, and to learn how to chart their own future.

“We want the students to have a true college experience,” says LuEllen Doty, a professor of education at Elmhurst who helped to create ELSA. “And we want them to learn how to think outside the box that has been drawn for them for much of their lives.”  

The program recently became the first in the Midwest to be able to offer federal financial aid to qualified applicants, making it more accessible to more students.

ELSA focuses on academics, helping students expand their skills in reading and comprehension, writing and mathematics. Recent changes to the curriculum have raised the emphasis on academics even further, by allowing ELSA students more opportunities to take traditional College courses and to learn alongside non-ELSA undergraduates.

Doty has been hearing increased interest in ELSA’s dual-enrollment option, in which students are admitted to both ELSA and Elmhurst College. The arrangement is ideal for students who need the social or independent-living support that ELSA offers—as an example, Doty cited young adults with Asperger’s syndrome—but who also need the academic challenge of a four-year college curriculum.

Students in ELSA learn employment skills and gain work experience, not by practicing specific tasks, but by investigating and pursuing their interests through job shadowing, internships, field work and volunteering.

Perhaps most significant, the program is an integral part of campus life. ELSA students are strongly encouraged to join the campus community as fully as they can, not only in the classroom but also by joining clubs and organizations. Some participate in first-year orientation activities like Big Questions, and all take part in commencement exercises. ELSA has graduated three classes so far.  

During the seven years in which ELSA has been operating, the number of post-secondary educational programs around the country for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults has grown markedly, to about 250. The benefits are marked as well: Students who have participated in such programs are 26 percent more likely to gain paid employment, according to federal figures. They also earned 73 percent higher weekly incomes.

Demand for programs keeps growing
Yet programs like ELSA still are the exception, especially in Illinois. Five years ago, the Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities called for three post-secondary educational programs similar to ELSA’s to be in place by September 30, but the council didn’t see the kinds of proposals it was looking for, says Sandy Ryan, program and policy director for the state agency. The same goal has since been placed on the agency’s next five-year plan, which extends to 2016.

Meanwhile, the demand continues to grow, says Stephanie Smith Lee, senior policy adviser for the National Down Syndrome Society and a former director of the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education. The original post-secondary programs were more focused on life skills and independent living, she says, “but as the field has taken off, you’ll see more emphasis now on academics and participation in traditional college classes and careers.”

The 2008 Federal Higher Education Opportunity Act has been a major force behind this trend, providing incentives for the development of more programs that would offer all students, including non-traditional ones, opportunities for post-secondary learning. The law establishes a new, comprehensive transition program for students with intellectual disabilities. It also enables them, for the first time, to apply for federal financial aid—Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, and work-study funds—if they attend an approved program.

Gaining access to federal financial aid could be a great help to some ELSA students, who currently have to pay full tuition and look to private scholarships and donations to offset the cost. The ELSA program was approved in December to begin offering federal aid to qualified students, making it one of only seven approved programs nationally. The National Down Syndrome Society has been working with the Department of Education to speed up the approval process for other programs, in hopes of generating interest by more institutions of higher learning in creating post-secondary programs. “I think it’s terrific that Elmhurst College has been one of the early leaders,” Lee says, adding, “while there’s been a great increase in programs in the last number of years, there still aren’t enough.”

The ELSA experience
Kari and Kristin Winter entered the ELSA program in the fall of 2006. They got their first heady taste of independence, taking public transportation to and from the College by themselves, learning to navigate the campus and their class schedules, keeping up with homework, and trying to get involved in—but not too distracted by—the constant activity and stimulation of college life.

Kristin Winter found that she could thrive under the high expectations of her computer-skills instructor, whom she called “Sergeant.” She discovered an aptitude for computers, enjoying the orderliness she could create from riots of information.

“They weren’t coddled,” Nancy Winter says about her daughters’ experience. “They had tough classes and their teachers were tough. Finally, they were in a setting where they were pushed, academically and socially, and weren’t allowed to slide. Finally, they were being treated like everybody else.”

Finding that kind of inclusive environment was so important to Gavin Riordan that he delayed starting ELSA for an entire year after he was accepted. “I was nervous, and concerned that it would be really exclusive from the rest of campus,” says Riordan, who is adamant about not being defined or limited by his disability. He was pleased to find that participation in the College’s student organizations was not only encouraged but, in at least one of his classes, required. “It was made very clear to me, very quickly, that this would be an integrated and accepting place,” says Riordan, who participated in the Spiritual Life Council, the Global Poverty Club and the ELSA peer mentor program.  

After graduating with his ELSA certificate this past spring, Riordan is back at Elmhurst, enrolled in the undergraduate program and majoring in political science. Having taken advantage of the dual-enrollment option, his senior year in ELSA coincided with his first year as a traditional Elmhurst undergraduate.

For him, the best part of the ELSA program was the opportunity for self-exploration and discovery, the kind of opportunity that any true college experience should provide. “They challenged me academically but also really helped me investigate what I wanted to do long-term for education and careers,” he says. “There is a vocational component, but a lot of this is about helping you identify what you want to do and how you want to get that done.”

Like Riordan, Jennifer Gans also is back in the classroom, taking courses at the College of DuPage so that she can become a veterinary technician. A member of ELSA’s first graduating class, in 2009, Gans is juggling schoolwork with two retail jobs, trying to save up enough money to get her own place. Her ultimate goal is to find a job that will enable her to work closely with horses. While she has loved and been around horses all of her life, it wasn’t until she became an ELSA student that she realized she could turn that passion into a living.

When Gans first started at ELSA, her plan was to become a teacher’s aide. But after taking a couple of early-childhood education courses and working with kids every day during an internship, she discovered that teaching wasn’t what she thought it would be.

She tried another internship, with a horse therapy program at the Hanson Center Riding Arena in Burr Ridge. As she helped to guide the horses, and worked with the disabled individuals who were learning to ride and care for them as part of their therapy, Gans knew she had found what she wanted to do. “The internships let me play around with what direction I wanted to go in,” she says. “ELSA helped me know what I wanted.”

A rise in people’s hopes and dreams
Encouraging disabled students to find their own way reflects a shift in attitudes that has been taking place fairly recently, as schools become increasingly accountable for educating children with disabilities, and as parents raise their expectations about what their children are capable of and what services should be available to enable them to do it. “One of the greatest challenges, throughout these children’s education, is raising everyone’s expectations,” Lee says.

Over the last 15 years or so, children with intellectual disabilities have been increasingly required to learn what everybody else learns. Then federal No Child Left Behind legislation sought accountability for their achievement. Consequently, achievement levels have risen, as have expectations for what should come next. “In the last 10 years we’ve seen a really dramatic rise in the hopes and dreams of these young people and their parents and the professionals who support them,” Lee says. “Societal attitudes have not changed across the board, but they certainly have improved in many respects, and the more public awareness there is about what young people can achieve, the more likely these attitudes will continue to change.”

Bob Gans, Jennifer Gans’ father, became a firm believer in ELSA because of the confidence and independence it helped her to gain. He describes a community service project she did during her senior year: providing care packages to soldiers in Iraq. She mapped out her plan, learned to raise money sought donations, bought and packaged the items, obtained mailing lists and sent everything out, largely by herself.

“Speaking, especially public speaking, is not something that comes easy for her,” Bob Gans says. “So when I found out that Jennifer did a presentation for funds in front of the local Rotary, I about fell out of my chair. She was doing more than I ever gave her credit for being capable of handling,” he says. “She did it on her own.” Now, after ELSA, “she’s just throwing it into a higher gear.”

In their third year as ELSA students, Kari and Kristin Winter returned for a day to Downers Grove South, where they spoke at a crowded assembly about life after high school.

“I told them about the program, and that there’s more out there for special-ed students than just vocational training,” Kristin Winter says. “I told them college made me feel like I was a part of something, for the first time in my life.”

Kari Winter says simply, “We went there and proved them wrong.”

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