Wednesday, August 17, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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BCC gives students new path

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Venture open house

More information on Venture will be available at two open houses, from 7 to 8 p.m. tomorrow in Room 270 or from 7 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 7 in Room 273, at Bellevue Community College's North Campus, 10700 Northup Way. You can also visit or call 425-564-2844.

Trent Marshall is learning how to run his own company. Amanda Bates wants to immerse herself in literature. Nicole Redinger is perfecting her skills as an administrative assistant, and Bergen Delisi has discovered he's a computer whiz.

Just a few years ago, all four young adults and their parents didn't know whether they'd ever be able to stretch their educations beyond high school.

But now, despite developmental disabilities, all are fulfilling their college dreams through a new program at Bellevue Community College that is the first of its kind in the country.

Called Venture, the program will award associate's degrees to high-functioning students with Down syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder, autism and a range of other developmental delays. It officially takes full flight at BCC this fall.

While other programs around the nation offer work and life-skills classes to this population, two things set Venture apart.

First, it's the only program that enables students to earn a standard degree, equivalent to what other community-college students receive and widely recognized by employers and other educational institutions.

Secondly, academics are at the forefront. While students are taught practical skills such as job hunting, résumé writing and social skills, their love of learning is also nurtured — something expected in regular college curricula but commonly overlooked when it comes to those with developmental disabilities, experts say.

"From the ninth grade on, many of these students are told to pursue workforce training," said Cynthia Johnson, the program director. "They've been told that their only choice is to work at McDonalds. Low expectations is a challenge we have to overcome."

Nurturing egos

For many parents, including several who were instrumental in getting Venture launched, the program represents a dream education for their child.

Denise Redinger said the program has taught her daughter Nicole, who has Down syndrome, how to advocate for herself. "These kids are slow," Redinger acknowledged. "And they're intellectual enough to know that they're slow. So half the battle is the ego."

Venture operates from BCC's smaller North Campus and offers a wide range of courses and a tailored learning environment. A few classes have been offered for several years, but the degree program begins this fall.

Though the courses are demanding, they are taught differently. Students receive information through books and teachers, but also use hands-on and experiential learning.

For example, in a recent literature class, young adults divided into small groups and started with a list of words they came across in the Robert Newton Peck novel "A Day No Pigs Would Die." They composed new dialogues that utilized words such as "cipher" in accurate and meaningful ways, and then read their compositions in front of their peers.

They were nervous. They giggled a bit at the stories they had written and at the sound of their voices taking on their fictional characters' personalities. But the presentations came off without a hitch, combining a lesson in vocabulary, literature, public speaking and drama.

Each day, teachers compile individual assessments of students' work to help keep them on track.

"It's unique"

The program is "on the progressive edge in the country," said Troy Justesen, deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services of the U.S. Department of Education. "It's unique. It's the only model we're aware of."

He said that as the program evolves and others possibly begin, they will be closely watched to see how well they work and whether they can be replicated.

Students who want to attend Venture must apply and be accepted through a process that includes formal testing. And it costs more than the average community-college degree — about $12,000 a year — mostly because earning credits requires longer hours in the classroom, and teachers use more in-depth evaluation procedures than a typical community-college grading system.

But it is still far cheaper than many schools that don't offer degrees, said Johnson, who conducted a national survey of programs while crafting the BCC curriculum.

Just this summer, Venture was approved to accept federal financial aid for its students, making it potentially affordable even for those families struggling financially.

Outside the classroom

Trent Marshall started taking some of the Venture classes several years ago. Since then, he has transformed from a shy, nervous person into someone who can waltz into a room of strangers and win them over with his easygoing style and informed opinions.

"I can connect what I learn in the classroom with my relationships on the outside," Marshall said. "For example, I learned how to talk to new people in surroundings I'm not familiar with."

Though he now balances school with a job at Target and running his own company along with two Venture friends, Marshall isn't sure yet what he ultimately wants to do. "I'm leaning toward something in the tech field," he said.

Though retail jobs are fine for some, Venture encourages and equips its graduates to pursue higher-level jobs and careers, such as positions in research, law firms and education, said Johnson.

Amanda Bates, 25, used some of the program's courses to pick up interview techniques that helped her get a job at Macy's, but she eventually wants to work in medical records.

She says the classes she has taken so far have done more than prepare her for the workforce — they've introduced her to a whole community of friends who have similar experiences and interests.

"It makes me comfortable to know that there are other people who love to read as much as I do," said Bates, who favors literature classes.

Social experience

Adele Delisi, whose son Bergen is enrolled in Venture, is one of a group of parents who approached BCC in 1999 about getting a single academic course geared toward developmentally disabled students. Like many of the students' parents, she has been a constant advocate for her child's educational abilities and goals.

"A lot of this success has to do with these parents' patience and advocacy," said director Johnson.

Though the classes have so far exceeded expectations, it's the social benefits that have really impacted her son, who had previously taken some regular community-college classes, Delisi said. In Venture, Bergen has found a new group of peers, and he and Bates have been dating for a year .

"In the regular classes, people were kind," his mother said. "But there were no friendships. This has provided those. And it has created independence."

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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