LAWRENCE — When COVID-19 prompted the closure of the University of Kansas campus, Dana Lattin had faith that students in KU Transition to Postsecondary Education, or TPE, could adapt to their new online experiences.
That’s because TPE is based on developing problem solving, creativity and resiliency, she said. Established with a five-year grant to the KU Life Span Institute in 2015, TPE offers students with intellectual disability a combination of academic, career development and student life experiences that builds their community participation and prepares them for employment.
“The assumption is that students with intellectual disability would suffer or struggle as everything moved online,” said Lattin, research project director and the administrator for TPE. “And like any college student, they struggled with some things. On others, they soared.”
Those students included Carleigh La Voy, a first-year student who dealt with the disappointment of canceled choir performances and the closure of her favorite place on campus, the Spencer Museum of Art, where she had an internship. But by the end of the spring semester, she had adapted like so many other students to managing coursework on Blackboard, learning and socializing over Zoom, and conversation apps such as GroupMe.
La Voy offered a final class presentation about her future goals to instructors and several family members over Zoom.
“It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be because it wasn’t face to face, so not as intimidating,” she said.
TPE students such as La Voy enroll in undergraduate KU courses, participate in student clubs and activities, can live in KU student housing and gain career experience through internships. They graduate in two years with a Transition to Postsecondary Education Certificate from the KU School of Education. It’s one of 48 federally grant-funded TPSIDs, or Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disability, that have been introduced at universities across the country in the past 10 years.
Engagement has been key to keeping TPE students involved and accountable, Lattin said. Once campus had closed, a request went out over the app GroupMe used by the students and staff for everyone to post a photo of their new home study space. Another day, everyone had to post a meme of how they were feeling. They continued to meet for study sessions with peer academic coaches, who are other KU undergraduate students, but instead of meeting at Watson or Anschutz libraries, they met on Zoom.
Some students excelled at adapting their internships to the new environment.
In the spring 2020 semester, TPE student Madison Peavey, of Leawood, had been interning in the classrooms of KU’s Language Acquisition Preschool, or LAP, in the Dole Human Development Center. When the preschool closed in response to the statewide stay-at-home orders, she found a way to convert what she had learned in class and at the preschool to select books for children, read them aloud and record the sessions on Zoom for children. One book she selected was “The Book of Hugs,” by Dave Ross.
“I loved that Madison wanted to help when we started doing weekly recordings for the LAP children,” said Ana Paula Mumy, KU clinical assistant professor and director of Language Acquisition Preschool. “She pulled together what she saw modeled in LAP and what she had learned in her coursework about how to engage young children in shared reading experiences. It was encouraging to see her asking some dialogic reading questions throughout the virtual reading as though the children were right there with her.”
Jacob Hammer, who like Peavey graduated with the TPE certificate this spring, moved online with his internship, too.
While he had been working on editing video projects at the School of Business with video producer Michael Brock early in the semester, the pandemic forced Hammer to work at home remotely with video editing and effects software to produce content for the School’s graduation video and other projects.
Hammer said he had not pictured himself going to college when he was a student at Free State High School, but he knew he would need more skills if he were to pursue his goal to work in television, filmmaking or video.
“I didn’t think I could be a full-time student at a university,” he said. “If someone has a disability and I knew them and they were worried about being a full-time student, I would tell them about TPE. It’s something you can put on your resume and help you get a full-time job because you have college experience.”
Karrie Shogren, director of the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities at the Life Span Institute and the primary investigator leading the grant that funds TPE, sees admitting students with intellectual disability as a benefit to all students and instructors, not just those who participate in the program.
“If you know how to engage students who have significant support needs, it helps you improve the way you support all of your students on campus,” said Shogren, who is a professor in the KU Department of Special Education. “We live in a diverse society, and we all know the power of interacting with people who have different experiences. A big part of the program is impacting all students, faculty and staff in the KU community.”
As the grant funding TPE nears its end, Lattin is hopeful that private foundation funding or other grants she is applying for can keep it going. Eleven students have been admitted for the fall 2020 semester, the largest cohort of TPE students yet.
La Voy, for one, can’t wait to be back on campus. She misses singing in choir class, Jayhawk Boulevard and socializing with friends in the crowded Wescoe Hall cafeteria.
“I have grown closer with my family,” she said, “but some days I'm ready to get back. I can't wait. I love campus. The people, the buildings. I love it.”
Photos: Carleigh La Voy, a first-year student in the Transition to Post-Secondary Education program, tours the Spencer Museum of Art (at top) and enjoys Late Nite in the Phog (at right) in these 2019 photos. Credit: Meg Kumin, KU Marketing Communications.