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BENTONVILLE -- Northwest Arkansas Community College's recent decision to scrap a program designed for people with cognitive disabilities stunned those who eagerly had anticipated the program's launch this fall.

Some, however, remain hopeful the occupational and life skills program still will find a home in Arkansas.

Skills definitions

Below are the Occupational and Life Skills program’s definitions of the two types of skills:

Life skills are the “abilities for adaptive and positive behavior that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.” (Adapted from unicef.org)

Occupational skills are life skills that are translated into the culture of a workplace that improves retention and increases advancement in a chosen career pathway.

Source: Bellevue College

The cost

Northwest Arkansas Community College’s occupational and life skills program would have consisted of 60 credit hours over eight semesters. It would have cost $667 per credit hour, meaning a student who made it all the way through the program would have paid $40,000.

The college’s tuition normally is $75 per credit hour for in-district students and $122.50 per credit hour for out-of-district students. The higher rate for occupational life skills students was deemed necessary because of the very low faculty-to-student ratio needed for the program to work.

Source: Staff report

"I think the support is there to find another college that could successfully replicate OLS," said Marci Muhlestein, national director of the occupational and life skills program headquartered at Bellevue College in Washington.

The four-year, 60-credit-hour program is designed to give adults with cognitive disabilities the chance to learn hard and soft skills essential for life and work in preparation for employment and greater independence.

Hard skills involve specific tasks that can be defined and measured, such as typing or operating machinery. Soft skills, sometimes called "people skills," cover things such as communication, teamwork and time management, which are often hard to measure. Most of those with cognitive disabilities need help with both kinds of skills.

Northwest Arkansas Community College officials began to explore the occupational and life skills concept more than two years ago. They earned state approval for the program. They spent about $1.8 million renovating a floor of the Center for Health Professions to meet the program's needs. They hired Karen O'Donohoe to direct the program in May.

The college originally intended to begin the program last fall. Officials announced in July they were postponing the launch by a year to allow more time to recruit students. An email sent in July to those on the program's mailing list stated, "The college is 100 percent committed to launching the program in the fall of 2016."

The college announced March 23 it was suspending the program.

Financial concerns

Evelyn Jorgenson, college president, said the decision was "incredibly difficult," but it appeared the college would be unable to sustain the necessary enrollment level in the program to make it financially feasible.

The state Department of Higher Education requires schools to continue offering a program until each student enrolled gets through it or drops out. Occupational and life skills is a four-year program.

"So we just couldn't afford to take the risk, not knowing what the future holds for higher education and knowing we're in this environment now where the Legislature wants to cut higher education," Jorgenson said. "It's certainly a very deserving population, certainly something that is needed in Arkansas. That's why we pursued it in the first place. But the risk was just too great."

Steadily declining enrollment over the past few years has put college officials on edge. The college recorded an all-time high of 173,282 credit hours taken by students in 2011. That number fell to 153,879 last year and is expected to be 146,322 this year, according to college documents. Another 3 percent decrease in credit hours is projected for next year and officials are seeking ways to plug an anticipated budget shortfall of $880,000 in next year's budget.

Bellevue College, located just outside Seattle, has successfully operated its program for 16 years. It was the only program of its kind in the nation until Lone Star College in Texas started a program last fall.

"I think we were a little bit worried too because the Bellevue program is in Seattle. That's a much larger population base than (Northwest Arkansas)," Jorgenson said. "They have many more people to draw from."

O'Donohoe, who led the program for nearly a year, said she was "very surprised" by the decision.

"The administration has been very open about the current budget situation," O'Donohoe said. "But I didn't think we'd be included in any cuts."

She and Muhlestein are confident there is enough interest in Northwest Arkansas and in the state to sustain the program for the long term.

The college had hoped to enroll between 12 and 14 people for each new cohort of students that began the program. As of March, O'Donohoe had three people enrolled for this fall semester; another 14 people had applied, even though the application deadline wasn't until June 30. The program had drawn applications from as far as Little Rock, Cabot and Mountain Home, O'Donohoe said.

"These families are grieving. And so am I," O'Donohoe said.

O'Donohoe was making a salary of $45,059 as occupational and life skills program director. She is moving into a new job as annual giving officer with the college's foundation.

Families miffed

Cognitive disabilities cover a wide range of disabilities that affect mental functions. Examples of possible disabilities include nonverbal learning disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, traumatic brain injury, sight impairment and autism, according to the Bellevue College website.

Students with cognitive disabilities have difficulty with initiation, organization and attention, which results in limited practical skills, work production and social interaction, the website states.

Bellevue College describes these students as "tweeners" -- adults with a disability who are often overlooked as potential college students.

There are about 100,000 people in Arkansas between the ages of 18 and 64 who have some kind of cognitive disability, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Typically around 70 percent of such people are not employed, but graduates of Bellevue College's program have an employment rate of 85 percent, Muhlestein said.

Tina Alley of Little Rock said she was prepared to move to Northwest Arkansas this year so her autistic son, Grant, could enroll in the occupational and life skills program. Grant Alley, 19, will graduate from a Little Rock charter school next month.

"We attended orientations, we submitted transcripts, we went through an application process," Tina Alley said.

When the college shelved the program, "it was like a slap in the face," she said.

"We missed deadlines for other programs, so as of now we have no plans. I am scrambling to figure out a program for him. I'm ticked. That's saying it nicely," Alley said.

Nicholas Smith, 21, of Fayetteville was diagnosed at age 6 with Asperger syndrome, considered to be on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. He graduated from Fayetteville High School in 2014, according to his parents.

Smith enrolled in the University of Arkansas. His parents paid extra to place him in a program meant to support autistic students, but Smith still lacked the kind of support that helped get him through high school, his parents said.

"He started having night terrors caused by stress," said Clarissa Smith, his mother. "His self-esteem just plummeted."

The family was elated to learn about the occupational and life skills program, which they thought fit Nicholas Smith's needs perfectly. Word of the program's demise crushed him, his parents said.

"He feels very let down by the education system right now," Clarissa Smith said.

Nicholas Smith aspired to obtain a history degree and become a museum curator, but that dream is on hold for now as he and his parents explore their options.

"We know he could contribute in a meaningful way," said Todd Smith, Nicholas' father. "But he can't achieve it in the traditional way. We've tried that."

Completing the program would have cost about $40,000 over the course of the four years, but the Smiths believed it would be worth it.

"Now we're just scrambling to figure out what we're going to do long-term," Clarissa Smith said.

Trenton Siemens, 27, of Siloam Springs was one of the three people who had been accepted into the Northwest Arkansas program, according to his parents, Doug and Julia Siemens. Trenton Siemens has autism, though he functions on a high level. He graduated from Siloam Springs High School in 2007.

The college's decision to nix the program hit the family hard. Doug Siemens broke the news to his son while they drove home from a movie in late March.

"He just kind of sat there stunned," Siemens said. "And he said, 'You mean I won't be able to go to college?' And then, every 30 seconds or so he said, 'That sucks.'"

O'Donohoe did a great job of preparing the program for launch, Siemens said.

"The school offered this, they dangled it in front of people, and I don't think the decision makers realize how hurtful it is to people with cognitive disabilities to then have it jerked away," he said.

Looking ahead

Muhlestein, the national program director, sent an email to program supporters April 5 seeking their help finding a different partnering college in Arkansas.

"We are exploring hosting a community forum where OLS supporters can gather, voice their support, and plan next steps," the email stated.

That forum likely will happen in May, but Muhlestein didn't have the details finalized as of last week. She already had 50 people interested in attending the forum, she said.

Muhlestein said she had informal discussions about the program earlier this month with people at Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock.

Because Arkansas already has approved the degree program, it would not be hard for another college to adopt it, Muhlestein said.

"It's just a matter of finding that right college," she said.

NW News on 04/24/2016

Print Headline: Abrupt halt to college program vexes families

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