From 'Learning Disabled' to Academic Success

A small two-year college in Vermont helps students labeled as unteachable to move on to full college study

BY the time students arrive at Landmark College, they've often flunked out of other colleges or universities. Many remember years of being labeled slow or unteachable.

But at this small school, terraced into a hillside above this southern Vermont town, such "learning-disabled" students get another try at academic success.

The academic rehabilitation that goes on here reflects a larger phenomenon in American higher education: the effort to open college doors to students with learning disabilities, such as problems with reading and focusing attention on academic tasks.

Prompted by federal legislation and the threat of losing federal funding, many colleges in recent years have instituted programs to help such students. According to Keith Lenz, of the Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas, this is "probably one of the fastest growing areas on campus now."

But the effort has not been without controversy. A few institutions, notably Boston University, have decided to scale back programs aimed at the learning disabled, voicing concerns about fraudulent claims for special treatment.

Landmark stands apart from such controversies. To begin with, its student body is entirely made up of individuals with learning problems - which probably makes it unique, according to Mr. Lenz and other experts. Its goal is to enable students to operate at the college level without special aids, like note-takers or special exam arrangements.

Landmark offers a two-year associate's degree, but many of its 240 students move on in less than two years. Some also stay longer.

The college just completed 10 years of operation and is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

College-level work

While Landmark students have to have been diagnosed with a learning disability, admission requirements also include "average to superior intellectual potential." The school's specific mission is academic success at the college level.

The college surveyed former students by mail last year and found that 88 percent of the 426 who responded had gone on to complete other kinds of college work, mostly at four-year institutions. That contrasts with other programs designed to prepare learning-disabled students only for "independent adulthood" through apartment living, money-management training, and vocational education, for example.

Landmark's curriculum includes literature, math, and other liberal arts, as well as an array of noncredit offerings in basic study and organizational skills. One-on-one tutorials are part of every student's schedule.

Most of the students here made their way through high school with passing grades, often concocting unorthodox ways of culling classroom information that others get through reading. But in the unfamiliar, often impersonal setting of a large college, that ability to improvise and squeak through can evaporate.

Elizabeth Lavine, a Landmark alumna who now attends the University of Vermont (UVM), in Burlington, finished the 12th grade without being diagnosed as having a learning problem and was admitted to Ohio State University. There, she was soon overwhelmed by large lecture courses and flunked out. After that experience, she underwent testing that indicated a learning disability.

This pattern is not uncommon, notes Dr. Lenz. Most students with learning problems don't go on to college, he says, but those who do aim for higher education are usually motivated and bright. With some intensive help in developing ways of breaking down subject matter and organizing thinking, they frequently succeed.

That was Ms. Lavine's experience. At Landmark she was tutored in study methods and took academic courses in classes of 5 to 10 students. "I never was a student before," she says, recounting some of the organizational techniques, like the diligent listing of priorities, that she learned here and still applies. She earned all A's in her first semester at UVM. "My past wasn't great, but that wasn't me," she says.

For some students, a past laden with learning failures nearly blotted out any hope for schooling beyond Grade 12. That was the case with Jennifer Del Salto, a second-year student at Landmark. Ms. Del Salto's high school years in Wilton, Conn., were filled with frustration. She recalls struggling with the question, "Why can't I learn like my friends?"

At Landmark, she says, concepts that never clicked before - such as the functions of subject and predicate in building a sentence - began to make sense.

Small classes

The methods employed to help Del Salto and other students here would probably benefit any learner: small classes, persistent tutoring, and lots of individual attention. The faculty-student ratio is 1 to 2.6, unheard of almost anywhere else.

Faculty members not only work with students during class hours, but are encouraged to be friends and mentors outside of class. Faculty and students often rock-climb or ski together. Building trust so that students can come out of their personal and academic shells is crucial.

"My sense," says English professor Maclean Gander, "is that every student who commits and is motivated to work will make progress." Here, progress means pumping years of missed learning into a relatively short stay at the college. Mr. Gander recalls young people arriving on campus with future hopes for graduate school - having achieved only a fourth-grade reading level.

Frank Sopper, acting director of admissions and another member of the English faculty, affirms that for all their problems with basics like reading, many of the students who come to Landmark have "great interpersonal skills - that's their strength."

Another instructor, Toby Lampert, who teaches classes ranging from study skills to architecture, says some students are very verbal, while others are quiet; some have trouble getting a paragraph down on paper, while others show distinct promise as writers.

Different learning styles

The key, says Lynda Katz, president of the college, is understanding that some people learn differently than others.

She says the closeness of the community at Landmark, where students with learning disabilities essentially have a campus of their own, allows individuals to discover their own ways of surmounting barriers. She acknowledges, however, that this approach can be controversial, with many educators preferring to mix those with learning disabilities into a general student body.

The kind of educational leg up offered at Landmark doesn't come cheap. Tuition and fees total nearly $30,000 a year - comparable to, or even higher than, many Ivy League tuitions.

The teacher-to-student ratio largely explains the cost, says Steven Nelson, vice president for college relations. Also, the college lacks an endowment or other large financial resources. Students get what financial aid they can and occasionally draw on public money for the disabled.

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