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Parents of kids with disabilities tailor education programs

Maureen used to be obsessed with baseball -- and then she had children. After she welcomed her son, Charlie, and his extra chromosome, she discovered her passion for writing about Down syndrome and disability-related issues.

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Having a child with disabilities comes with tremendous rewards and challenges. For some parents, it’s not enough to sit back and make the best of whatever programs exist in their community. For the parents spotlighted here, life became about creating the best possible opportunities for their own children and, in turn, for many others.

Philips Academy, Charlotte, North Carolina

Philips Academy
Image credit: Philips Academy

When their son was only 12 years old, Jane and Phil Blount knew Philip, who has intellectual disabilities, was unlikely to attend college. But it seemed that was all high school was intended to prepare him to do.

Philip Academy's mission:

To provide our students with the academic, occupational and social skills needed to be self-reliant, confident and contributing members of their communities.

The Blounts wanted their son to be as independent as possible. They knew Philip had limitations, but they also knew he could be a reliable worker, a productive member of his community, an active member of his church, a good neighbor and an involved citizen.

"School work was becoming more and more frustrating for Philip and we were spending every afternoon and evening on homework," Jane explains. "We knew something had to change, so I met with Barbara Parrish, and we talked about what Philip really needed as far as preparing him for the future."

Parrish, an educator with 15 years' experience working with students who have special needs, dove into the project, and together they created Philips Academy, where students with disabilities can learn life skills that prepare them for independence.

Eight years later, the school has 26 students, an executive director, four programs (middle school, high school, Bridges — the post-secondary program, and the residential training program) and eight staff members.

As for Philip Blount, he has a high school diploma, completed the Bridges program, has part-time jobs and spends several nights a week in a condominium he shares with a friend. As his mother, Jane, puts it, “Life is good!”

The IDEAL School, Manhattan, New York

The IDEAL School
Image credit: The IDEAL School

The IDEAL School was founded by three families who were unable to find inclusive elementary school options for their children with Down syndrome. The school’s five pillars form its acronym — inclusion, diversity, excellence, acceptance and leadership.

"We met as parents to wonderful babies and toddlers with Down syndrome and, over the years, we and our children became friends," explains Audra Zuckerman. "Faced with a dearth of schooling options and not wishing to move out of New York City, we decided to start an inclusion school."

The IDEAL School's mission:

The IDEAL School of Manhattan is an inclusion school dedicated to creating a diverse community that affirms and accepts the full identities of all people, while inspiring academic excellence, creative leadership and a desire to build a more just and equitable world.

Angela Bergeson is head of The IDEAL School and explains why the word "acceptance" is so integral to the school’s founding pillars.

"At IDEAL, we think that most folks shoot for tolerance as the marker for diversity," she says. "We have always felt that tolerance falls short and that true acceptance goes well beyond merely tolerating individuals.

"Acceptance means, to us, the attitude of embracing differences and affirming the identities of others and ourselves."

Bergeson explains that success for students at IDEAL is individualized. "Each student has their own path toward academic, emotional, physical and social goals. No two students are alike. Success in general at IDEAL means that students know who they are, what their strengths and challenges are as a learner and are not afraid to take risks."

Zuckerman describes the sense of accomplishment she feels. "Each day that I… see the depth of the diversity of our students, the relationships and respect among all of our students regardless of ability, the power of the individualization and co-teaching, and palpable joy in the building, I realize anew that IDEAL… is changing the lives of so many children and parents."

DREAM Partnership, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania

DREAM Partnership
Image credit: DREAM Partnership

Donna Partin, chair of the DREAM Partnership's board of directors, says the idea began with her daughter's "relentless desire to attend college as her brother and peers have done." Demi Keller is 18 years old and has Down syndrome. When Partin began to research opportunities, she was dismayed to learn there were no inclusive programs with dorm opportunity in the state of Pennsylvania.

DREAM Partnership's mission:

To develop a selection of post-secondary educational opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities in Pennsylvania that includes independent and supported dormitory options.

Partin connected with other parents seeking similar opportunities for their children, and DREAM Partnership was born. In just over a year, the program has become a successful reality.

DREAM’s mission is to develop a selection of post-secondary educational opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities in Pennsylvania that includes independent and supported dormitory options. The program’s vision is for all students in Pennsylvania to have options and the opportunity to attend a post-secondary education program.

"Success happens when a student with ID [intellectual disability] attends college, resides in a dormitory, completes a certificate program and becomes employed," says Sherri Landis, executive director of DREAM Partnership. "Our successful students are not any different than any typical student attending college."

"Our challenge is convincing the colleges that an inclusive program is [an] important asset to their college especially if they have education majors," Partin says.

Q&A

What is your advice for parents nationwide who seek to duplicate your success?

Jane Blount, co-founder, Philips Academy: "Don't lose sight of the students and a chance to make a difference in their lives and the lives of all the people that love them. Maintaining our focus and staying true to our mission has been key. Also, assembling a strong board of directors who share the mission and put the students first is important."

Deborah Hofland, executive director, Philips Academy: "Parents should consider researching academic opportunities as soon as they know they have a child with a disability. Parents may not know with certainty what lies ahead, but it is helpful to be aware of options. Parents tell me all the time that they wish they had known that there were other academic programs available earlier in their child's academic career."

Sherri Landis, executive director, DREAM Partnership: "There are over 200 programs across the U.S. and each program is more than willing to give advice. Think College is an excellent resource for both parents looking for a college and those people who want to start a program. You should also have a dedicated board of directors and committee members who are well-connected in your local community."

Audra Zuckerman, vice president, IDEAL School board of trustees: "Every decision we have made since day one — and continue to make regarding the school — flows from the mission, and it is the mission that has guided us to success. It is thus also critical to have a team of parent partners and educator partners who are 100 percent committed to the mission and willing to put in time and effort to make that mission a reality."

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