EMPOWERING INDEPENDENCE: BCSC partners with local colleges on new program for students with disabilities

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. and two local colleges are collaborating on a program to help students with disabilities transition into college life and adulthood.

Officials from BCSC, Ivy Tech Community College – Columbus and IUPUC gave a presentation on the new “Empower Program” at a recent school board meeting.

BCSC Director of Special Education George Van Horn said the initiative will focus on 18- to 22-year-old students with disabilities who need “different opportunities than we can provide in a high school environment.” At present, the plan is to start with about two to four students this fall. School officials hope to grow this number over time.

“With our amazing community — considering the size, the safety, our bus system — we have a great opportunity to be able to help our students truly navigate the adult world outside the walls of a high school setting,” said BCSC transition coordinator Mary Hamlin. “… If you want people to act like adults, you need to treat them like adults.”

Empower will be a one- to two-year transition program on the AirPark Columbus College Campus and within the community itself. Participants will be 18- to 22-year-old BCSC students with Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) who are “working on a certificate of achievement.”

The Empower Program is meant to provide students with a chance to participate in the college experience while also developing skills “to live a fulfilling and independent life.”

“The goal is before they leave us they are 100% independent within their adult day within our community,” said Hamlin.

The three partners will work together on the program. BCSC’s role includes having a special education teacher and teacher’s assistant collaborate with each student, their family and student mentors from the airpark campus.

BCSC staff will help “facilitate students’ desired life choices” and also manage IEPs alongside Ivy Tech’s Director of Disability Support Services. BCSC will also help train and manage IUPUC and Ivy Tech student mentors.

Ivy Tech’s piece of the program includes allowing Empower students to attend Ivy Tech classes (with tuition and fees waived), providing access to a variety of student resources and opportunities, and providing support “inside and outside of the classroom.”

“First and foremost, our Empower students are Ivy Tech students,” said Jennifer Englert-Copeland, Ivy Tech’s vice chancellor of student success. “They will apply to the college, get their student ID, become Ivy Tech students.”

The college is planning for these students to take one or two classes each semester. Englert-Copeland said that the school is looking at a potential launch in October, with the first class being a “college success course.” The school will then work with students to come up with a plan for each semester based on their interests and “what might be a really good fit for them.”

For IUPUC’s part in the program, the school’s education students will serve as some of the peer mentors for Empower participants and provide friendship, classroom support and extracurricular support. These relationships will also benefit the IUPUC students.

“I frankly think that the IUPUC students stand to learn a lot from this program,” said IUPUC Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs Joan Poulsen. “I think, of course, there is that friendship and sense of belonging. And, of course, the social and emotional learning that goes into programs like this. One of the big things that we see is our (education) majors are trained in the K-6 realm. And this is going to give them an opportunity to see what things can look like in the future for their students. That’s a pretty amazing thing.”

The end goal is for an Empower student’s last day in the program to be “their first day of their life as an independent adult living, working, playing and belonging in our community,” according to the presentation. School officials hope that IUPUC and Ivy Tech students will engage in meaningful interactions with students with disabilities and become better equipped to enter the field of education.

In addition to the collaboration from both colleges, Van Horn said that the Empower program is also the result of support from the city of Columbus, including tax increment funding received from the Columbus Redevelopment Commission.

He also noted that Empower will fill a major gap in terms of a needed pathway for students with disabilities. Conversations around the program began a couple of years ago.

“I said to Mary, after she got this job, ‘One of the things we’re missing is what are we doing for our students who are in that 18- to 22 year-old age range that we’re still educating in high schools?’” he said. “(The) 18- to 22-age range, still educating in high schools. And we went, ‘That doesn’t make any sense. They’re not supposed to be in a high school setting; they’re supposed to be in college or at work or something like that.’”

Hamlin then worked with the two colleges to develop the Empower Program.

When asked what a day in the life of an Empower student would look like, Van Horn said that the timeframe will be similar to that of a “typical school day.”

Ideally, students will use public transportation to reach the airpark campus, as this is an “independent skill” they’ll need in the future. After arriving on campus, they will take part in activities with BCSC teacher of record Violet Toland, attend Ivy Tech classes with support, and spend time with IUPUC student mentors. School officials also hope to have Empower students visit job sites.

“That’s kind of all the pieces,” said Van Horn. “How they fit together for each student will vary from student to student to student. There won’t be a ‘one size fits all.’ ”