Innovative pilot program provides a college experience for young people with learning disabilities
Next Step program coordinator Alice Kim and participant Edward Nesbitt make ceramic beads at the Sarratt Art Studio during the Next Step Summer Institute on July 21. (photo by John Russell)
by Joan Brasher in the Vanderbilt View
When Andrew Van Cleave was a senior in high school, he told his parents that he wanted to attend college like his peers. But for Van Cleave, who has learning difficulties and limited fine and gross motor skills, a post-secondary educational experience with typically developing students didn’t seem likely.
Then his mother, Mary Layne, came across an article in the newspaper about Next Step, a two-year certificate program that Vanderbilt was piloting for students with intellectual disabilities. The Van Cleaves applied, and Andrew was accepted as one of the program’s first students.
“It was a ray of hope,” she said.
Elise McMillan, director of outreach at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and one of the faculty directors of Next Step, has a 22-year-old son with Down syndrome and is one of the impassioned individuals who spent years formulating the program through a state-wide task force. Guiding the task force were representatives from the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee, the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, The Arc of Williamson County and leaders of the National Down Syndrome Society.
“We were all hearing from youth with disabilities that they wanted to go on to college like everyone else,” McMillan said. “Through our son Will, his friends, and so many others we have met, we have learned the true potential and gifts of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In too many areas of our society, they still do not have the opportunities that so many others have.”
The members of the task force discovered that only a few post-secondary programs nationwide could be found, and even fewer that included integrated classroom learning, internship opportunities, technical job training and student-to-student mentorship. McMillan and her associates set out to create a program that would be a model not only for the region, but for the country as well.
“Vanderbilt, Peabody and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center always have been leaders in developing important programs and supports for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” McMillan said. “When we looked across our country, we saw there was a real void of programs, and we hoped to help change that.”