Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

College Collaboration: Students Learn about Themselves and Others

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

College Collaboration: Students Learn about Themselves and Others

Article excerpt

How often do students with autism and related behavioral challenges get to experience a college campus before they leave the safety net of high school? How often do pre-service college students studying education get to experience the students they will one day work with outside of the classroom walls before fully committing to the profession?

The answer to both questions is "not very often." The solution to both is partnerships between schools that serve students on the autism spectrum and local colleges. The Forum School, a New Jersey state-approved private school located in Bergen County, and Ramapo College have formed such a partnership, and it has been a win-win situation for all involved.

The Forum School, founded in 1954 by a group of parents who could not find appropriate placements in public schools to address their children's specific needs, has always believed in extending learning beyond the walls of the classroom. It has been a cornerstone of the program since its inception, providing instruction in the local community before Community-Based Instruction was chic. Since expanding their program to serve students through age 21 in 2012, they have developed a Structured Learning Experience Program with ties to over forty businesses in the local community. The vocational component of their unique transition program was flourishing, but leaders at The Forum School wanted to enhance the social experiences of their young adults even more.

Enter Dr. Julie Norflus-Good, Director of the Master of Arts in Special Education Program and a Professor at Ramapo College of New Jersey, located in Mahwah. Dr. Norflus-Good approached educators at The Forum School with a vision for a program in which her pre-service undergraduate students gained hands-on experience in working with young adults outside of the classroom, and young adults with developmental disabilities gained the experience of being on a college campus in a social setting with their non-disabled peers.

A symbiotic relationship was born! Dr. Norflus-Good collaborated with Vicki Ofmani, Supervisor of Instruction and SLE Coordinator at The Forum School, to create a partnership that was mutually beneficial for all involved.

Once a week, students on the autism spectrum aged 18-21 in The Forum School's E.L.I.TE. Program (Education Leading Individuals Towards Employment) travel to Ramapo College to interact with Dr. Norflus-Good's undergraduate education major students on academic tasks and experiential learning projects. Even more important than the work, is the opportunity for The Forum School's young adults with developmental disabilities to socialize with the college students in the campus setting and to navigate the grounds, the college buildings, and the cafeteria. Many students would never have the opportunity to see what college is like their experiences limited to visiting campuses of their siblings and other relatives. But with more and more colleges creating support programs for those on the spectrum, there are real possibilities for The Forum School's students to attend college, and this relationship gives them their first taste of college life.

On the flip side, at 18 years old, it is really difficult for college freshman to determine what career path they want to take. The experience the undergrads gain in interacting with and learning to understand the needs of young adults with developmental disabilities is priceless. Based on a recent student feedback survey Dr. Norflus-Good distributed, this opportunity has helped some students decide they made the right choice in choosing to pursue a career in special education, and for others it helped them realize it is not for them.

Dr. Norflus-Good believes this cutting edge partnership is helping her students.

"Today's classrooms are diverse, and I believe all students need as much hands-on learning as they can get. It truly is an amazing collaboration," she stated. …

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