College fair opens new doors
Learning-disabled students explore expanded options
BY TAMMY J. OSEID
Kathy Boone and Suanne Orenstein wondered three years ago what their learning-disabled children would do after high school. Could they handle college? If so, how? If not, what other options were there?
More kids are graduating from high school with attention-deficit disorders, brain damage and other learning disabilities that make traditional college lectures, massive reading assignments and frequent essays difficult.
But not only are more colleges now willing to offer tutoring, books on tape, recorded lectures and note-takers to help learning-disabled students, they're recruiting them to help increase campus diversity.
Flooding a St. Louis Park school gym, parking lot and neighboring streets, more than 850 students and their parents learned what to expect from more than 50 colleges around the nation Monday at the Groves Academy college fair organized for learning disabled students.
The answers surprised some.
"I didn't know they wanted people like me," said Tracy Barriball, 20, of Prior Lake. She has minor brain damage and is taking classes at Sylvan Learning Center, but would like to start at Normandale Community College next year. "When I graduated from high school, there was never anything like this."
Unlike the huge Minnesota National College Fair at the Minneapolis Convention Center today and Thursday, the metrowide fair is limited to colleges with services for the learning-disabled. The colleges have disability services counselors to answer questions at their booths along with admission officials.
It's the third and biggest learning-disabled college fair so far for Groves Academy, a private St. Louis Park school for students with learning disabilities and attention-deficit disorders. Boone and Orenstein, who are leaders at the school, worked with the academy's board to design the fair, the only one of its kind in the five-state area.
"It's exciting for parents to see that there are options," said Lisa Shackleton of Plymouth.
Despite the heavy turnout, which intimidated some, it's a far more reassuring environment than the larger, more crowded general fairs, said Groves Academy spokesman Dan Sluka.
"When you have rows of students three to four deep, it's uncomfortable to say: 'Excuse me, I have a learning disability, what services do you have for me?' " he said. "This is a night for them."
Courtney Hopper, a Sunfish Lake senior who attends Groves, has been accepted to Dakota County Technical College's nursing program, where the college will help her study nursing by providing many of her textbooks on tape, giving her a note-taker to help with lectures and providing a tutor. Now she's helping her younger brother Bobby, who also has learning disabilities, find the right college.
Courtney's oldest brother, now 30, dropped out of college because he didn't get support for his disabilities.
"I really regret not having this kind of help for my oldest son. … I wish we knew then all the things we know now," said Courtney's dad, Rich Hopper. "College has always been a sink-or-swim experience. But these kids can't make it on their own."
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1980 and 2000, the number of K-12 students nationally with learning disabilities doubled to 2.8 million. In 2000, almost 1 percent of college students had learning disabilities.
Colleges and professors are getting better at helping learning-disabled students and finding ways to recruit them, Boone said.
"More and more, professors are adapting to different learning styles," Boone said.
About 10 percent of Dakota County Technical College's students are learning disabled, said Anne Swanberg, a disability-services adviser.
"There's such a stereotype of students with learning disabilities," said Leslie Zenk, the University of Minnesota-Morris' assistant director of admissions. "The brilliant students and their families that I talked to tonight shattered most of them."
Still, some, like junior Abbey Shackleton of Plymouth, who is interested in photography, worry that their disabilities — hers are in math — will make it more difficult to pursue a career.
Others, like sophomore Michelle Lundeen of Shakopee, are confident they'll be able to succeed anyway. Lundeen would like to become a marine biologist and thinks Minnesota State University-Moorhead might provide the right academic program and accommodations for her attention-deficit disorder and related learning disabilities.
"Back when I was in high school, we talked about learning disabled students as being retarded kids," said Michelle's dad, Mark Lundeen. "It's good they're doing this so everyone can see what's now possible. … More are beginning to see these children as jewels: diamonds in the rough, perhaps, but diamonds nonetheless."
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