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Colleges for students with learning disabilities
Colleges for students with learning disabilities

Colleges for students with learning disabilities

RAYNE NELSON, a 21-year-old sophomore at Landmark College in Putney, Vt., does not let her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder throw her off track.

Ms. Nelson is paying most of her own way at Landmark, a two-year college exclusively for students with learning disabilities and A.D.H.D. She wants to graduate on time this spring, and with tuition and fees alone at $48,000 a year — more than any other college in the nation — she cannot give in to distraction.

“I have a lot riding on this,” says Ms. Nelson, who is also dyslexic. She wants to transfer to a four-year institution and get a bachelor’s degree — a goal that would have been out of reach, she says, had she not found Landmark three years after graduating from high school. If Ms. Nelson gets her associate degree in May after four semesters, she will buck the trend at Landmark.

Only about 30 percent graduate within three years; many others drop out after a semester or two. The numbers suggest that even with all the special help and the ratio of one teacher for every five students, the transition is not easy.

About half of the 500 students at Landmark are recent high school graduates or, like Ms. Nelson, arrive after a period of drifting. Most of the others have tried and failed at college already, coming with the goal of getting the academic or organizational skills they need to succeed at a four-year college or to enter the workforce.

Federal law requires all colleges to provide some accommodations for the learning disabled — tutoring, for example, or extra time on exams — and with the rapid increase in students with diagnosed learning disabilities, many mainstream colleges and universities are trying to serve them better. But they still fall short, experts say, for those who need help not just with study skills like how to take notes and write papers, but also with basic daily functions like getting to class on time. Proactive parents might help these students make it through high school, but they face steep odds once they leave home.

For such students, options are growing. Mitchell College, a small residential campus in New London, Conn., now offers a transition year in which students earn transferable credits while preparing for college life. Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla., like Landmark a degree-granting institution for the learning disabled, plans to add a summer program for college-bound students by 2012 and take 100 more students by 2014.

Among for-profit ventures, the College Internship Program helps 18- to 26-year-olds learn social, academic and life skills, including how to study, manage money and even cook. It is expanding its summer transition program for new high school graduates to each of its locations in five states. Landmark, too, is expanding its summer program, to North Carolina, Oregon and California.

All of these programs are expensive and, given the economic downturn, out of reach for many. This fall, for the first time, Landmark did not meet its enrollment target, with 26 fewer students than planned. “Applications and acceptances were up,” says Dale Herold, the college’s vice president for enrollment management, “but when it came down to paying, the follow-through wasn’t there. The economy this year was like, whoa.”

The drop is a serious matter for a small, tuition-dependent college. Landmark has an endowment of only about $11 million. One reason is that the college is relatively young — it is celebrating its 25th anniversary this school year. Another, officials say, is that alumni are reluctant to donate because of the stigma attached to attending a school for the learning disabled.

Some students struggling in mainstream colleges decide to spend just a “bridge semester” at Landmark to get help specifically with time management and productivity. Mac­Lean Gander, who teaches writing to these students, says many of those in his class are talented writers but routinely fail to show up for class or hand in papers. They are students like Isabel Jacob, 19, who has A.D.H.D. and was asked to leave Salve Regina College in Newport, R.I., after failing three courses her freshman year, and Michaela Brunell, 20, who fell behind at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

“I loved it my first year,” Ms. Brunell says, “but as my classes got more work-oriented, I didn’t have good strategies set up.”

One recent session, she was one of only two students prepared to make a final presentation in Mr. Gander’s class, which explores how A.D.H.D. affects the writing process and helps students deal with their attention issues. Mr. Gander repeatedly reminded the students that their final paper was due that Friday; he seemed concerned that most students were putting off making their presentations until then, too.

“Obviously we’re going to have a long day on Friday,” he says, scanning the faces in his classroom.

ON its face, Landmark College does not look like one of the nation’s most expensive schools. The academic buildings are squat and plain, the grounds understated, and some dorm rooms have a ’70s-era feel. Likewise, in many classrooms there are only subtle hints of the learning disabilities that make college so challenging for the students there. Some might speak so quickly that they are hard to follow; others might trail off in the middle of answering a question, distracted or grasping unsuccessfully for the right words.

One afternoon in an English class, a student frequently asked the professor to repeat what he had just said. In a seminar about learning disabilities, meant to help students understand their diagnoses, a young woman was using three differently colored pens to highlight text, a strategy to process what they read: one color might indicate unfamiliar words, and another the facts that could show up on a test.

“We’re dealing with really bright students here,” says Michael Nieckoski, Landmark’s director of educational technology services. “In some ways they may be even smarter than your average undergraduate, because they’ve spent most of their lives trying to either overcome their diagnosis or outsmart everyone.”

By the time they get to Landmark, though, some are so far behind that the chances of catching up are slim. Linda J. Katz, the college president, says about 20 of the 220 new students this past fall could not read above a sixth-grade level. They started out working on basic skills in noncredit courses. This fall, about 6 percent of Landmark students were taking only noncredit courses; another 16 percent were getting partial credit while they worked on reading and writing. Those with more than basic skills take a for-credit curriculum that includes classes in literature, history and science.

During their first semester, students are steeped in techniques for keeping up with schoolwork. For note-taking, they are taught to divide a page into two columns, recording as much of the lecture as possible on one side and main ideas and topics on the other. For time management, they are given planners and told to schedule everything from when they will start a homework assignment to when they will eat dinner.

“It’s really about being intentional and systematic in ways that are common sense,” Mr. Gander says, “but not taught as explicitly, generally, as they ought to be.”

Every student who needs it gets assistive technology. Those who have trouble reading, for example, can listen to a computer reading their textbooks instead. Those who struggle with writing and spelling can dictate a research paper to a computer that will transcribe it.

Meghan Benzel, a third-semester student with A.D.H.D. and nonverbal learning disorder, says being able to listen to her reading assignments had made all the difference for her. “It’s saved my reading comprehension,” she says. “I can actually get work done instead of staring at a textbook for hours.”

Ms. Benzel, 20, came to Landmark reluctantly — her aunt had heard it advertised on the radio — after graduating from high school in Kennett Square, Pa. There, Ms. Benzel says, she was an unhappy loner whose top goal was keeping her learning disabilities secret.

“I’d make up so many excuses just to get by,” she says, “but I still felt like the odd man out. It was great to get here and realize that everyone needed almost the same help I needed.”

In addition to taking five classes last semester, she is a tour guide and residential adviser with a gaggle of friends and concrete goals. After graduating in May, she plans to join AmeriCorps and work with inner-city children.

But Ms. Benzel says that as an R.A., she sees another kind of Landmark student — the kind who comes grudgingly, often pushed into it by parents, and never accepts help.

“Last week the kid next door to me left,” she says. “He had given up on classes and wasn’t in good contact with anyone.”

It is not supposed to happen that way. Officially, a network of academic advisers who meet weekly with each student, resident deans who live in the dorms, and tutors and counselors keep a close eye on students who rack up absences, botch assignments or appear socially or emotionally adrift. But in reality, such students are especially likely to resist help and keep their problems under wraps. John Nissen, dean of transfer services at Landmark, says the best predictor of success is “the ability to stop resisting everything.”

André Salerno, a 25-year-old from New York City who flunked out of two other colleges before arriving at Landmark, says students who leave typically struggle with social interactions and scheduling issues even more than they do with academics.

“They don’t go to classes a lot,” he says, “and they’re usually up all hours of the night.”

Rayne Nelson says student turnover is so high that “I’ve had different sets of friends every semester.” For a while she tried to help other students in her dorm, inviting groups of them into her room at night.

“I was the mother hen,” she says. “I was like, ‘Everybody come into my room and we’re all going to do our homework.’ ”

Eventually, though, her own tactics to stay focused included moving alone to an apartment in town. “It’s distracting on campus,” she says. “Too many people come up and talk to you.”

The typical Landmark student is 19 and male — only about 30 percent are women, who are less likely to have diagnoses of learning disabilities, partly because of genetic and neurological differences and partly because girls are more likely to keep disabilities hidden. But there is no typical path for the roughly 100 students a year who graduate. Some, like Ms. Benzel, reject the idea of continuing school, at least in the near term.

Of those who received associate degrees and transferred to four-year institutions over the last five years, about a third dropped out, according to data gathered by Landmark. The rest have either graduated or are still working toward bachelor’s degrees.

Sarah Tarbell-Littman of Bronxville, N.Y., had floundered for a semester at Mount Holyoke College, spent five semesters at Landmark and now attends Clark University, taking three courses each semester instead of four so as not to fall behind.

“She knows what she needs now and can ask for it,” says her mother, Diane Tarbell. “Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s a big first step.”

Landmark, she says, helped her daughter feel more comfortable with her dyslexia. “There’s something very freeing about being among peers that are struggling with many of the same issues,” she says. “It was very empowering for her. And to also just wear it on your cuff — ‘Hey, I have dyslexia.’ Everybody gets it.”

In the Landmark seminar about learning disabilities, the class of eight discussed the concept of reframing — learning to look at their disabilities in a different, more positive light. Reframing was often a lifelong struggle, their instructor warned, but in the warm cocoon of the classroom, as rain gently tapped the windows, the process seemed well under way, if only for the hour and 15 minutes that the class was in session.

“It isn’t something to be ashamed about,” says Levi Nelson, a second-semester student with Asperger’s syndrome from Brandon, Vt. “It’s something about you. It’s truth. There you go.”

Abby Goodnough is Boston bureau chief of The Times.

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