Calvin to provide credits to students with intellectual disabilities

Federal grant pumps $1.2M into programs designed to prepare students for work and life.
The Ready for Life program provides educational opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Courtesy Andy Calvert

More students with intellectual disabilities will be able to earn college credits at Calvin University, courtesy of a $1.2 million Transition and Postsecondary Education for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID) grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The grant hastens the university’s efforts to become the first in Michigan to offer a Comprehensive Transition and Post-Secondary program. Some of the students who will benefit from the initiative are from the Ready for Life Academy program.

Calvin has been partnering with Ready for Life, an organization that provides educational opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities to attend schools such as Calvin, Hope College and Ferris State University.

“Since 2007, the Ready for Life Academy (RFLA) has provided a college experience for young adults with intellectual disability,” said Kate Strater, assistant professor of education at Calvin. “These are students who have historically been excluded from higher education.”

According to Emily Perton, executive director of Ready for Life, 16 students currently are taking classes at Calvin. They all have different types of intellectual disabilities; most have mild cognitive impairment, while others are autistic. Nevertheless, they are taking life skills and college classes to earn a Certificate of Completion from the Ready for Life Academy. They also interact with other college students through mentorship and in other academic and social settings.

Perton said every school in Michigan is required to educate a student with an intellectual disability until the age of 26. Students are offered a transitional program, like the Ready for Life Academy, to learn employment and life skills.

For some students, however, the program makes them feel like they are taking a step backward, Perton said.

“They have been fully included through high school — taking classes alongside their peers in high school,” she said. “They weren’t just taking special education classes, and the transition program is only for students who have intellectual disabilities. So, for them it feels like a step backward.”

The program has evolved over time.

“One of the reasons this program has evolved is because, instead of coming into their senior year of high school and saying, ‘Can I go to college?’ they were saying, ‘Where am I going to college?’ because their peers are going to college,” Perton said. “They have been alongside their peers throughout high school and all their peers were going to college so why wouldn’t they be going to college?”

Although the Ready for Life Academy students already have been going to Calvin, this grant now affords them the full college experience.

The TPSID grant will provide students with more inclusive opportunities, including officially earning college credits for their classes, which will go toward a Calvin University certificate. They also will become eligible for federal financial aid because of the grant.

“We continue to be a leader in the area of inclusive higher ed,” said Strater. “This grant now allows the funding for us to expand access to residence living, on-campus programs and services, and campus life for students with intellectual disabilities.”

The grant also will help provide an inclusive living and learning support system (including training opportunities for faculty and support staff); fund a new partnership coordinator who will help build partnerships with the many internal resources for students (Center for Student Success, Career Services, Center for Counseling and Wellness, Service-Learning Center, Rhetoric Center, etc.); help build external partnerships with employers and with local school districts; and some funds will be used for research and program evaluation.

“This is a particular community that we’ve had on campus for years, and so we are delighted that this grant allows us to provide a more equitable full college experience,” said Brian Bolt, dean of education at Calvin. “We hope this leads to a greater sense of belonging, and we know that this will be to the benefit of our entire community.

“That credential from Calvin is intended to help students get employed. And just like with any other student, we are preparing them both for their first job and for life.”

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