What’s after high school for children with learning differences?

High school classroom at New Way Academy. Photo by Cassandra Tomei.
High school classroom at New Way Academy. Photo by Cassandra Tomei.

About eight years ago, the staff at New Way Academy, a Phoenix private school for children with attention and learning differences, became curious about how their former students were doing out in the wider world.

A few teachers started making phone calls and discovered, to their great dismay, that a number of the very bright, capable young people who had attended their K-12 school were flaming out in a postsecondary environment.

The school shored up efforts to prepare its students for life after high school. And in 2012, New Way piloted a separate off-site postsecondary transition program to provide one-on-one tutoring and mentoring to high-school graduates. It didn’t take long to realize they were on to something.

“These students were succeeding at the postsecondary level,” says Jason Moore, executive director of what is now called NorthBridge College Success Program.

Of the total number of students NorthBridge has served since then — 60 as of this past school year — only five have not persisted with their postsecondary plans. Some, Moore says, “are blowing by their original projections.”

NorthBridge incorporated as a separate nonprofit organization in May 2014 and now works with students from schools all over the Valley. The tuition-based program specializes in helping students with dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders, autism spectrum disorders and executive functioning challenges — bright kids who just need a little extra support to help them surmount the changing expectations of a postsecondary curriculum and the challenges of becoming, at age 18, self-sufficient adults.

“College is absolutely accessible” to these kids, says Simon Crawford, a former New Way teacher who is now director of academic services at NorthBridge, based in Scottsdale. “It just takes a calculated, careful approach.”

Bye, bye IEP

The biggest challenge for young adults is aging out of Individualized Education Plan (IEP) protections, which ensure appropriate accommodations and supports for K-12 students with qualifying disabilities.

“The IEP has become this very powerful support system that has guided every piece of their high school experience, but it no longer applies at the college level,” Crawford says. “So you shift from the high school system, which is all-encompassing — parents, staff, students — and move to a system that’s very much student driven.”

Arizona’s state universities and community colleges have disabilities resource centers that ensure access and accommodations to students with any kind of disability, including learning differences. But only if the student initiates a request.

It’s a defining — and potentially undermining — shift, says Moore.

“Throughout the K-12 years, schools are mandated by federal law to proactively provide supports and accommodations. At 18, they are only required to provide accommodations when requested. And the request has to come from the youth, the individual. It can’t come from the parents. For many [families], this is an abrupt change.”

Crawford agrees. “Parents don’t have the authority they once did,” Crawford says. “Students have to visit the disability services office, do the paperwork, meet with the counselor, explain their challenges and what they need. If they haven’t been prepared, or they have communication or social challenges, imagine how intimidating that might be.”

The substitute: self-advocacy

The most resilient young adults learn at an early age to accept the reality of their own strengths and challenges, says Hattie Linham, director of transition services at New Way.

“It’s so important for a child to be able to articulate ‘This is my learning difference, these are my needs, these are my strengths, this is what works best for me,’” she says. “We’re putting an emphasis on educating parents so they know how to have those really sensitive conversations in a way that leaves them and their students feeling positive and empowered.”

New Way encourages parents to include students in IEP meetings, which by law must include transition planning beginning at age 14. “As early as you can, bring the student into the room,” says Linham. “The discussions are not about putting them down, but helping them understand their strengths and weaknesses — and the earlier, the better. I like to hear from the kids what they think is hard, what they think will help them.”

And here’s a tough one for parents: Work on letting go.

“You have to start gradually releasing responsibility so [children] can develop these skills,” says psychologist Lauren Brown, director of support services at New Way. “Maybe your kid is not in special education but has ADHD or something that affects their executive functioning. Are you still getting your student up in the morning? Is the student planning assignments or is Mom still going, ‘Hey, what happened to that assignment you had due Friday?’”

As New Way students enter high school, career assessments are used to help students develop realistic expectations for the future. Linham is a big fan of the ACT profile, a free online tool. It can provide students a “starting place for determining future forms of study or careers in their interests,” she says.
High school students can take one community college class per semester and also have opportunities to get work experience so they develop realistic expectations of what certain jobs entail.

Linham says it’s important that high school students take advantage of social and community service opportunities to build their own networks and relationships with people who aren’t connected to their school. She gives the same advice to teens without disabilities.

“For students, one of the most challenging things [about leaving high school] is losing that support system the school provides,” she says.

Sharing the support

A recent study found that 88 percent of students with learning disabilities expect to pursue postsecondary goals — but only 67 percent actually enroll. Of that 67 percent, only 41 percent complete degrees.

If there is one frustration shared by NorthBridge staff, it’s knowing that for every 60 students they serve, there are almost 50 times as many Arizona students with learning differences graduating from high school each year who could benefit from similar support.

That’s why NorthBridge is working aggressively to build community partnerships that will allow more students to access its programs. Thanks to a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation, 24 students at Glendale and Paradise Valley Community Colleges during the 2015-16 academic year received personalized mentoring and academic support staffed by NorthBridge.

The students, whose challenges included dyslexia, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder and processing disorders, met weekly with a NorthBridge mentor who helped them adjust to the rigors of college work and improve their executive-functioning and study skills. They had access to academic specialists for three hours each week.

NorthBridge is also reaching out to public high schools, where some transition programs are focused more on employment than postsecondary opportunities for students with special needs.

“A great many of these young people can achieve success at the postsecondary level,” Moore says. “We want to raise the bar of their expectations. We often encounter a sense of ‘Let’s be real here…’ but we’re going to fight against it. Every parent wants their child to have every opportunity available to them.”

NorthBridge plays another important role parents may not immediately grasp. Relationships with teens transitioning to postsecondary life can be fraught with emotion — the push/pull of independence and looming separation can strain the closest of family bonds.

At NorthBridge, Moore says, “We’re the taskmaster — and the students appreciate it. They accept the accountability.”

A parent’s perspective

Nancy Heller of Paradise Valley is a volunteer parent transition adviser for NorthBridge and a member of the nonprofit’s board. She’s probably its biggest fan, though her son, who has dyslexia, never attended a NorthBridge program.

Reed, now 23, did take full advantage of something similar: the Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques (SALT) Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The center, founded in 1980, is a nationally recognized model of academic support for students with learning and attention challenges and works to encourage student engagement, self-awareness and growth.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of learning difference these kids have, they can overcome it with enough mentoring, assistance and parental involvement,” Heller says.

Early in her son’s academic journey, Heller, a former teacher, recognized the value of parental “surrogates” in his life. When he first struggled with reading, she scheduled reading time with another family, so she and the other mother could “trade” kids to neutralize any power struggles.

At New Way, which he attended beginning in fifth grade, and later at Horizon High School in Phoenix, Reed benefitted from other adults who would “take him under their wing,” Heller says. He had a close relationship with a mentor at the SALT Center.

“At some point, the kids do want you to back off a little,” Heller says. “It’s fine to back off, but you need surrogates in there.”

As with NorthBridge, accessing resources at the SALT Center requires fees above and beyond the typical costs of college enrollment — typically upwards of $5,000 per year for comprehensive services, although individual programs can cost less.

Heller urges parents to consider the alternative: “Do you want that young person living with you the rest of your life? Or do you want them independent? There’s a cost to that, too.”

Reed graduated from the U of A’s Eller College of Management and is now a local representative for Mondeléz International, which markets snack foods in 165 countries around the world.

Emily Henderson (left) and Cody Ivers with Academic Lead Kristin Jones. Photo by Tac Coluccio.
Emily Henderson (left) and Cody Ivers with Academic Lead Kristin Jones. Photo by Tac Coluccio.

Success stories: Cody and Emily

Cody Ivers was a hardworking high school student, but the thought of a bigger learning environment made him nervous.

When he enrolled at NorthBridge, he knew he would get academic support. What Ivers didn’t count on was the boost to his self-esteem that came from new social connections and one-on-one mentoring from the staff.

“Five years ago, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking with you,” says Ivers, who struggles with social anxiety and learning disabilities. “I used to be decked out in all black … not really speaking.

“They helped me get through a dark time in my life,” Cody adds. “I actually became mellow again. I started wearing colors again.”

Cody enrolled at South Mountain Community College, where he is now president of Club Teach and earned an honors scholarship. Now 23, he is confident, poised and 100 percent committed to his goal: teaching special education high school English. “Those kids need someone they can relate to,” he says.

With support from NorthBridge, Emily Henderson of Phoenix completed her associate of arts degree and is now pursuing an interdisciplinary studies degree at Arizona State University.

“I love history,” she says, adding she hopes to work some day in Washington, D.C., at one of the Smithsonian museums, or in tourism.

Emily, who has dyslexia, powered through high school at New Way in just three years. After working at a couple of jobs, “I decided college was for me,” she says.

Emily, who turned 23 in July, says at NorthBridge she has gotten help picking her college classes “to make sure they’re matching up with my career field,” and she has benefited from time with several tutors. She’s also made friends.

“On certain Fridays we all go to the movies or out to dinner,” she says. “Or we play games here and get pizza.”

Related: Support for postsecondary transitions.


Special Needs Resource Fair, 2016, Raising Arizona Kids magazine, RAKmagazine, kids, Arizona