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Most students start school in the fall with some confidence that they will have opportunities and choices when they finish. But the options available to special needs students and their families when they age out of public school are not so obvious.
That is where Options for College Success (OCS) plays a vibrant and possibly unique role.
Options for College Success, 820 Davis St., is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit that has been addressing this issue since 2008. OCS is a post-secondary educational program geared specifically for young adults, ages 18 to 30, who have some sort of learning challenge. The program’s ultimate goal is to help each student achieve independence and full potential through education and meaningful employment.
The offices, reception area, and individual rooms where studying, tutoring, and counseling take place are utilitarian. The brightest spot in the office is the Hall of Fame, painted sunshine yellow and lined top to bottom with certificates of completion and awards given to many of its past and current students. These walls provide tangible proof of the effectiveness of OCS.
Some of the challenges students deal with include autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, traumatic brain injury, executive function disorder, social and maturation issues, ADHD, processing and non-verbal learning disorders. The program’s brochure lists more than 20 conditions or disorders, some more widely known than others, but each presenting specific and personal challenges to the affected students and their families.
OCS distinguishes itself because each student receives a customized program. The staff of Options for College Success works closely with the student, the student’s family, and the appropriate professionals at the student’s school or work to develop a weekly schedule designed to maximize that student’s success.
Students sign contracts that outline their specific goals for the year. They also spend time learning and practicing independent living, social, and financial management skills as well as education and career development. The program includes membership in the McGaw YMCA, and students are encouraged to exercise regularly. Everything is done to encourage and support good and healthy habits for daily living.
Christine Anderson, Options’ Executive Director, and Shoshana Axler, the Director of Admissions and Development, advocate for the students and serve almost as surrogate parents, especially for students who come from beyond the Chicagoland area.
The schools the students attend are diverse, ranging from community and junior colleges to four-year universities throughout the area. By law, each college or university must have a staff member on site as a resource for students with disabilities.
Ms. Anderson and Ms. Axler have no hesitation reaching out to on-campus resources to advocate for fair accommodations for their students. These accommodations are to “level the playing field” for the student and to compensate for a particular disorder; the goal is not to make work any less rigorous or standards for accomplishment any less steep.
Ms. Anderson and Ms. Axler have an extensive network of contacts within the learning disability and disorder community. Resources they will involve as needed include the Department of Health and Human Services, job coaches, physical and occupational therapists, and the people at the Evanston-based Institute for Therapy Through the Arts. New tutors and therapists are constantly being added, depending on what students need at any particular time.
In addition to working with the students, Ms. Anderson works extensively with the parents and is in regular communication with them. The parents go through an adjustment period as much as the students do, she explained; it is very important that parents feel they have someone to talk to who will listen to them.
The parents of most of the students have been advocating for them their entire lives. It is difficult for these parents to give up control, and Ms. Anderson understands that fear and hesitation. Over time, she says, parents learn to trust her judgment.
“The amazing thing is,” Ms. Anderson says, “as the students are treated with more respect and as adults, they start to become more independent.” Ms. Axler adds, “The students all look out for one another. They know we help their dreams become realities.”
Those who do not commute locally live in individual apartments in an apartment building in Evanston. A married couple, one of whom has a background in social work, lives in the same building as the students, and they serve as Resident Advisors (RAs).
The RAs facilitate the social activities and serve as resources outside the normal work and school day. Although the program does not offer 24-hour supervision, someone from Options for College Success is always available and on call – a boon to students and parents alike.
Evanston is an ideal location for this program. The office and apartment building are within walking distance of the CTA and Metra Davis Street stops, and the train station is a hub for most North Shore bus routes. Most of the students do not have cars; they learn how to navigate using public transportation and how to manage their time based on train or bus schedules. The staff meets with students regularly and is available for support and counsel.
Twelve months of Options for College Success costs $41,400 plus tuition, room, and board. Families may apply at any time. The application process includes a detailed application form; interviews with the staff; reviews of all transcripts; references; and a neuropsychological report on each student. Once a student’s file is complete, the family is notified within 30 days. Enrollment is limited to about 20-25 students at any one time to ensure each student receives individualized attention.
Families tend to find out about Options for College Success through word of mouth, referrals by the counselors and professionals in their lives, or finding the program online. As far as Ms. Anderson and Ms. Axler know, Options for College Success is unique in the United States because of the individualized and intensive one-on-one management students receive.
Despite the cost, families speak highly of the program. Janet Hoffman, an Evanston resident, talked with pride about her daughter Julia, a participant in the program. Ms. Hoffman said, “We had hoped, but didn’t really believe, that at this point in her life Julia would be leading such an independent life, handling day-to-day challenges, living on her own, graduating from community college, and more. With help from Options for College Success, she has exceeded all of our dreams for her. Julia is happy. She has worked so hard to achieve all of these accomplishments, and we are very proud of her.”