UNION GROVE, Wis. — Aiming to duplicate 15 years of success in Racine County, Shepherds College is making plans to expand with new campuses serving students with special needs far from its Wisconsin base.

Officials on the Union Grove campus for adults with developmental disabilities are planning outreaches this summer to assess the potential for establishing operations in both the Dallas and Atlanta metropolitan areas.

Shepherds College has created a unique product by offering students with disabilities the chance for an authentic college experience, those officials say, and the same formula could prove equally successful in other parts of the country.

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Although the campus in Union Grove attracts students from several surrounding states, many families are reluctant to venture far from home when seeking educational opportunities for their loved ones with autism, Down syndrome or other developmental challenges.

Tracy Terrill, president of the private, faith-based college, said he feels a moral obligation to branch out and reach new populations of students with special needs who are stuck without a way to keep learning and achieve independence after high school.

“We need to do more,” Terrill said.

Shepherds College has partnered with churches near Dallas and Atlanta to meet this summer with families of students with disabilities in both metropolitan areas with the hope of interesting them in a new college option for their loved ones.

If the weeklong recruitment efforts are successful, officials plan to establish commuter colleges starting next year, and then perhaps later build brick-and-mortar residential campuses to fully duplicate the Shepherds College experience.

The tentative plan calls for launching one commuter campus in 2024 and another the following year.

Kevin Bloye, outreach director of West Ridge Church in suburban Atlanta, said he is certain that families will welcome Shepherds College to Georgia, and that many of them will jump at the chance to enroll their sons and daughters.

West Ridge Church specializes in serving families with children with developmental disabilities, currently representing about 150 families in a congregation of 3,500 people.

The church hosts a prom every year for students with special needs who are graduating from high school in the area. And a new $5 million facility being built for the church’s special-needs ministry could become home for the new Shepherds College commuter campus.

Although many universities have programs for students with disabilities, Bloye said, none of them can match Shepherds College’s profile as a stand-alone institution providing specialized education and job training in a faith-based environment.

“We’ve never heard of anything like Shepherds College,” he said. “And that’s one of the things we hear from our parents.”

Opened in 1964 under the name Shepherds Home and School, the faith-based Christian boarding school at 1805 15th Ave. started with 36 children with intellectual disabilities.

After changing temporarily to an adult residential facility, it evolved into Shepherds College in 2008.

With 80 teachers and other staff, the college currently serves about 75 students in three-year programs to prepare them for careers in culinary arts, horticulture or technology.

The cost of attending Shepherds College is about $55,000 a year.

Accredited by the Atlanta-based Council on Occupational Education, Shepherds College has a graduation rate of about 75%. And four out of five graduates are employed, many in the restaurants, greenhouses and office settings for which they are trained.

With students arriving from throughout Wisconsin, as well as Illinois, Minnesota and elsewhere, the campus includes dormitories, food service, health care, extracurriculars and other features common in traditional university campuses.

Three years at Shepherds College, Terrill said, takes young adults with disabilities who might otherwise feel lost or forgotten and transforms them into men and women who are prepared to start careers and to strive for independence and fulfillment.

“We’re changing the trajectory of their lives,” Terrill said. “It’s profound.”

Not long after Shepherds College got started 15 years ago, officials began talking about branching out to other parts of the United States.

Recruiting students on a nationwide level was challenging, but officials also knew that young people with developmental disabilities had few, if any, choices in their own communities quite like Union Grove’s special college.

Brian Canright, who was then the college’s director of recruitment, decided to make Shepherds College expansion the topic of his master’s degree thesis at Concordia University near Milwaukee.

After his graduation in 2017, Canright’s 115-page report became a blueprint for the college’s current growth strategy.

Now vice president of expansion, Canright said he concluded that Shepherds College is so unlike other postsecondary education programs that it can successfully create new campuses in big cities throughout the country.

“We have the culture. We have the mission,” he said. “We have the people to do it.”

About a dozen staff members from Union Grove are traveling this July to present the “Shepherds College Preview Experience,” a weeklong recruitment program scheduled first in Texas and then in Georgia.

Officials at Prestonwood Baptist Church in suburban Dallas could not be reached for comment.

Bloye said his church learned about Shepherds College about a year ago from one church family who had made the decision to send their child with a disability all the way to Wisconsin for college.

The family was so happy with the experience that they suggested a partnership that would somehow bring Shepherds College down to Georgia.

The more church leaders learned about Shepherds College, Bloye said, the more they were interested in introducing the school to the church’s families of kids with special needs.

“They just really connect with who we are as a church,” he said of Union Grove’s college. “This opens up opportunities for a lot of our students.”

College officials initially had discussed simply choosing a location and then building an entire new campus.

Only later did their thinking evolve into first testing the waters with temporary commuter colleges before deciding whether to make the investment in permanent brick-and-mortar operations with dormitories and all the rest.

They currently plan to start with one- or two-year programs providing a generalized curriculum rather than the three-year programs specializing in culinary arts or others.

If the demand is there, officials say, the program offerings could grow rather quickly. And Shepherds College could branch out into other cities as well.

“We’re all just kind of taking one step at a time,” Canright said.

Terrill said reading Canright’s master’s thesis persuaded him that taking Shepherds College national was not only plausible and feasible, it was a moral duty.

He cited statistics showing that about 150,000 young people with developmental disabilities graduate from high school every year in the United States.

If most of them would never consider coming to Wisconsin for college, Terrill said, the college must go to them.

“I felt compelled that we needed to move this forward,” he said. “Touching more lives is what it’s all about.”

© 2023 The Journal Times
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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