- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2006

BLACKSBURG, Va. — The college classroom scene is a familiar one: young adults in flip-flops and baseball caps, some scribbling notes furiously, others napping.

Near the front, Evelyn Scruggs will fill an entire page during the course of the hourlong class. But she will not remember the lecture topic or one word she wrote by the time she packs her bookbag to leave.

Miss Scruggs, 19, has attention deficit disorder and related short-term memory loss, and like everyone in this mock class at Virginia Tech, she is hoping the transitional College Bound program will give her tools to balance her disability with her dream of a degree.

The students get advice on navigating wheelchairs over hilly terrain, finding note takers and deciding whether to “come out” to peers about less-obvious disabilities. Specialists say such tips are vital as college administrators attempt to ensure the success of the increasing number of disabled students.

About 6 million U.S. children now receive special education services, designated for students whose mental or physical limitation affects their learning, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Among them are an increasing number seeking a college degree: 11.3 percent of undergraduates nationwide reported a disability during the 2003-04 academic year, compared with 7.7 percent during the 1989-90 school year, most recent department statistics show.

Special education over the past decade has moved beyond getting students to functional levels on such basics as reading, said Lynda Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Children.

Now students are encouraged to move to advanced levels of study and take on more complex subjects.

But college challenges remain, from living independently with their disability to coping with the sudden loss of the family, teachers and specialists who have molded their education from day one.

Only 15 percent of disabled college students who started during the 1995-96 school year had earned a bachelor’s degree by 2001, compared with 29.8 percent of students without disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Nearly half of disabled students — 41.2 percent — dropped out that year. The remainder earned lower degrees or continued their education.

While a successful student may easily balance schoolwork with cleaning an apartment, some disabled students cannot perform such daily tasks and excel academically at the same time, said Jill Rickel, national director of admissions with the College Living Experience, among the most extensive transitional programs in the country.

“People are failing out of school because of independent living skills,” she said.

Specialists say the very support systems set up to help the disabled in grade school may also hurt them.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, disabled students from kindergarten through high school are entitled to an individualized education plan created by teachers and specialists.

It all stops in college, a surprise to students who may think administrators will know their needs, said Jane Warner, assistant director of services for disabled students at Virginia Tech and co-organizer of College Bound, the school’s collaboration with Radford University and New River Community College.

The program is open to high school juniors, seniors and entering college freshman with conditions ranging from speech impairment to cerebral palsy. Organizers started the program in 1999 after administrators at the schools noticed students failing.

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