Mom Sought College Program For Son With Down Syndrome, Then Helped Create One
AUSTIN, Texas — On a recent Friday morning, Miguel Gonzalez sat on his living room sofa in West Austin with paperwork and information packets spread across the coffee table. Over the past few weeks, his mother, Vilma Luna, has been taking him to buy supplies — hangers, a trash can, cleaning supplies for his dorm room — like most kids headed into their freshman year of college.
Gonzalez, a 21-year-old with Down syndrome, will be part of the inaugural class of Aggie ACHIEVE students this fall at Texas A&M University in College Station. He’ll participate in a four-year certificate program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, which is the first of its kind in Texas.
He and four other students in the program will live in the dorms, take courses with their peers and have full access to after-school programs and activities. The goal is to get them integrated into meaningful jobs so they can live more independently.
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Luna, Gonzalez’s mom and a former state representative from Corpus Christi, helped establish the program at A&M with special education professor Carly Gilson after realizing Texas lacked programs that bridge the gap between high school and the workforce for people with disabilities. More than 1 million school-aged children in the United States receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, yet avenues for attending four-year colleges are few and far between.
“Historically young adults with intellectual disabilities in Texas have had very limited opportunities for higher education, and if they wanted to enroll in a program that offered a four-year residential experience that paralleled the traditional university experience, they would have to go out of state,” Gilson said. Texas has some shorter vocational programs. “There is definitely a need.”
How it works
Students who want to join the Aggie ACHIEVE program would apply in the fall like any other would-be freshmen. In their first year, they will take a freshman experience course, physical education and at least two other regular courses — the only difference being extra supports in and outside the classroom, like extra time taking tests and reformatted assignments.
They will also start on-campus internships as early as their first year, working in places like the university library and dining services. In their final year, they will have extended internships off campus, similar to an apprenticeship, in the field of their choice.
“We want our students to have a certificate plan that is catered to their individualized interest,” Gilson said. “The overall goal for this program is to have integrated employment in the job of their choice at the end of four years. We work backward from that point to decide what kind of classes they will be taking. Then we approach faculty members to see if they are willing to have those kids in their class.”
Students interested in the program are required to have a diagnosis of an intellectual disability, a minimum third-grade reading comprehension and the ability to communicate verbally. Those who attend will live in apartment-style dorms on campus, which means they also need to be able to live independently without personal care support.
“Just in the past couple of months, since Texas A&M first released the press release, we have had 400 people email and express interest, mostly in Texas but also outside of Texas,” Gilson said. “I know we will have a lot of interest.”
Gonzalez, who graduated from Westlake High School in the Eanes school district, has never been away from home, except for five weeks this summer when he attended a college experience camp at A&M. During that time, he made video calls to his mom and dad every day. He said he also made a few friends on campus, which helped calm his nerves about moving away. But he’s still very cautious, he said.
“It’s a big, big school,” he said. “I’m scared.”
Luna said she is ecstatic for her son.
“I am, of course, going to miss him,” she said. “But I am so proud of him for always working hard, never being discouraged. He is seeing this as a way that is going to open a lot of doors for him.”
‘Any kid is capable’
The other students attending the program this fall with Gonzalez are from Dallas and Houston, including childhood best friends Abby Tassin and Alexis Villarreal, who grew up a street apart in the same neighborhood in Missouri City and both have Down syndrome.
Tassin’s mom, Kristin, said she didn’t know her daughter had the genetic disorder, which causes learning disabilities and other medical issues, until she was born. Somehow, the tests missed it.
From the beginning, she said, doctors had told her all the things Abby wouldn’t be able to do: live on her own, attend regular school or even speak.
“We just decided at the outset, with her being our first, that we were going to have the same expectations with her as we would any other child,” Kristin Tassin said.
She said her biggest struggle was fighting against a school system that didn’t think Abby deserved to be there.
“Standardized testing doesn’t support a child with a disability being in the classroom,” she said. “By the time she got to high school, I think they finally realized. She was doing really well, and they would tell me, ‘You have to understand, Abby is high-functioning.’ … Any kid is capable if you just give them a chance.”
Nineteen-year-old Abby graduated from Ridge Point High School in the Fort Bend school district outside Houston in May. One day, she hopes to be a teacher.
After she applied for the Aggie ACHIEVE program, she asked her mom every day to check the mail, anxiously awaiting her acceptance letter. When it arrived one day in June, she was overjoyed.
“I am worried,” she admitted in an interview. “But I do want to go to college. I have always wanted to go.”
Kristin Tassin said it’s bittersweet to watch her daughter leave.
“We are less concerned about the educational support for her but more how she is going to spend her free time,” she said. “Her life is very structured. If she has a whole day or a free weekend, what is she going to do with that time? I have to keep reminding myself that this is what we raised her for. We can’t hold onto her. We have to let her go do her thing.”
Abby Tassin and the other students will have academic mentors on campus, known as ACHIEVEmates, who have taken their same courses in the past or are enrolled alongside them. Students can volunteer to be ACHIEVEmates and support those enrolled in the program outside the classroom, including by taking them to the gym, social events and football games or helping them manage everyday tasks like their calendar and email.
“It’s also an opportunity for their peers at A&M to learn alongside this important segment of our population that have historically been on the margins of our society,” Gilson said.
Aggie ACHIEVE has not received any state money and is relying in its first year solely on student tuition and donations to pay teacher and mentor salaries and provide support services. That means the tuition is pretty steep: Without state funding, in-state students will have to pay out-of-state rates, plus an additional fee for the program. The total cost is about $10,000 a semester.
Currently, the university is seeking a Comprehensive Transition Program designation from the U.S. Department of Education, which will allow students in the future to apply for financial aid.
“Some years back there wouldn’t have been an opportunity like this anywhere in the country,” said Luna, who, unlike other parents with high school students, had to create a college experience for her son, in addition to just supporting him getting into college. “I think what’s exciting for me about Aggie ACHIEVE is that it’s going to create so many opportunities for so many young people that a few years ago people didn’t even think about.”
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