College no longer out of question

MILWAUKEE -- Whether she would walk, or even learn to talk, were in doubt, said her mother, Delphine Taft. Over the years, Kathleen needed hours of physical, occupational and speech therapy to get where she is today - a 17-year-old sophomore at Milwaukee's Arrowhead High School.\nBut despite her progress, Kathleen's parents still were surprised when she declared her intention recently to enroll in college.\n"I think, as a parent, you're concerned because when you've got a child with a learning disability, Wisconsin has been so wonderful because you kind of get baby-sat," said Delphine Taft, as she and Kathleen recently visited with college representatives who came to her high school.\n"So all of a sudden, you go to the college level, and you're scared as a parent."\nIf past experience bears out, Kathleen Taft will be one of thousands of high school students with disabilities exploring options in higher education this year. The growth in numbers of students with disabilities in colleges and universities illustrates how the nation's special education law has opened doors.\n"I think it's huge because, really, it's one of the only avenues to higher salaries and increased opportunities for any of the kids," said Mary Kampa, a special education director with Cooperative Educational Services Agency 11 in Turtle Lake, Wis. "It keeps kids off of public assistance, those kind of things."\nAccording to a recent report by the National Council on Disability, the percentage of college freshmen with disabilities more than tripled between 1978 and 1998, from 3 percent to more than 9 percent. And the proportion of high school graduates with disabilities who went into post-secondary education increased from 3 percent in 1978 to 19 percent in 1996.\nMost statistics are based on students who request services from their institutions, which commonly represent only a fraction of students with diagnosed disabilities on campus.\nTo help the students, many schools organize "transition nights." As with college fairs, social service workers who specialize in helping people with disabilities are invited.\nAt a transition night at Arrowhead High School in the Town of Merton, Wis., last week, parents and students navigated between about a dozen different tables, looking for some guidance on what they should do to prepare for college life and beyond.\nGriffin Schroeder, a 17-year-old Arrowhead junior, always had his sights set on higher education, even after being diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism. He used Arrowhead's transition night to get information on admissions standards and specialty services available at different schools.\nThe degree of help that colleges provide - from note-taking and tutoring to testing accommodations - pleased Angie Pfeiffer, an Arrowhead senior who plans to attend Waukesha County Technical College next school year.\nPfeiffer has a learning disability that she says slows her reading, and she has a muscle delay that makes taking notes difficult. But she's optimistic about her future.\n"I think maybe the work's going to be overwhelming, but that's kind of how senior year is," Pfeiffer said. "I can't imagine that I'll be any more stressed out than I am now, just because making the decision of what to do and where to go, I'm really, really stressed out right now."\nOrganization and study skills can be especially tough for students with disabilities. \nSome colleges, like the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, offer summer orientation programs for disabled students to become accustomed to campuses and college life before freshman year begins.\nMany times college students don't ask for help or don't even know help is available if they have disabilities until they run into trouble, said Laurie Peterson, director of the learning disabilities program at UW-Milwaukee.\n"There are many who come from a high school program (who) want to do it on their own," said Peterson, who has seen her program grow from serving fewer than 20 students in 1987 to 253 today.\n"I think there are many who no longer want to be associated with the LD (learning disabled) room or where they might be labeled," she said. If they run into difficulties, being put on probation or failing a class, "then they may decide to come forward and declare they have disabilities"

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