‘They belong in this community’: ABLE program allows students to experience college life

The ABLE program allows students with cognitive disabilities to experience college life. Several university students help with the new program.

Students and peers grab a quick picture with Norm the Forester at the Fort Wayne Tin Caps game Aug. 29.
Students and peers grab a quick picture with Norm the Forester at the Fort Wayne Tin Caps game Aug. 29.

For some students with cognitive disabilities, high school is their reality until the age of 22. Thanks to the new Achieving Balance in Life through Education program, they can now experience life as a college student.

Due to an Indiana Federal grant from the Think College Program given to Huntington County schools, the university was able to host a program geared toward students with disabilities. Five dual-enrolled high school students with cognitive disabilities are part of the ABLE program.

In order to get into the program, ABLE students have to “be identified with a mild or moderate cognitive disability,” Joni Schmalzried, Ed.D., assistant professor of education, said.

The ABLE students spend the day as full-time university students would, Schmalzried said. They go to class and chapel, study, work out, eat lunch and enjoy free time — all on campus.

At the beginning of every day, the students start out in a class targeted toward life skills.

“This is a group of kids, much like you guys as freshmen, who are used to someone telling them what to do, so we work a lot on choice-making,” Schmalzried said. “We work on skills they need to get acclimated.”

The ABLE students are encouraged to implement these choice-making skills during their free time.

“One of the girls was upstairs on one of the couches, and that worried everybody, but I said, ‘That’s not unusual. I see other kids doing that,’” Schmalzried said.

The ABLE students each attend one regularly offered course every day such as Public Speaking or Physical Wellness.

“I spend time with all the kids by going to class with them,” junior Korynne Kik said, “helping them with homework, playing games and basically helping them understand what it’s like to be in college.”

Around 20 regularly enrolled university students are peer mentors for the five students. They help guide the ABLE students throughout their activities.

“I simply provide support for those in the program during their daily tasks,” junior Anne Hacker said. “Sometimes that simply looks like having lunch with a student or introducing them to my friends, and other times, I work with a student on her homework.”

These five ABLE students are not degree-seeking, Schmalzried said. Grades are not the focus. She said the program is about exposing the students to subjects they are interested in in a university setting.

“It’s important for the ABLE students to build an understanding and a confidence in themselves that you really only get when you leave a very contained environment,” she said.  “I want them to have an experience that they belong in this community.”

The peer mentors said the program is going well.

“It has been a crazy start to the year, but each time I spend time with the students, all my craziness just stops,” senior Jamie Schreur said. “I enjoy the conversations and laughter I have with the students. [They] enjoy being on campus so much.”

Schmalzried said the program was possible because of the “effort between a lot of people.”

“No one person has been responsible for all of this,” she said. “It has been a group of people who have stepped up and said, ‘Yeah, okay, I’ll work on that.’”

The ABLE students are technically enrolled at Huntington North High School, even though a majority of them walked in the spring 2014 graduation ceremony. Students with a diagnosed disability often stay in high school past age their initial graduation in order to reinforce the learning of valuable life skills, but Schmalzried said that the repetition from year to year can get old for the students, and that is why the ABLE program is so beneficial to them.

In order to make this collaboration successful, the county schools had to work together to figure out enrollment and transportation. She said the relationship between county schools and the university is encouraging.

“It’s been a wonderful collaboration between Huntington county schools and HU,” she said. “We need more of that [collaborative effort because] we have different things to offer each other.”

Editor’s note: The original article said the university directly received state funding. The Huntington County school system received the funding, and the university hosts the ABLE program on campus. The article has been corrected.

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