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Aspire program aims to bridge the gap between high school and college

West Chester, PA – The transition from high school to college can be an overwhelming experience for any student. It can be even more so for WCU Building students with an autism spectrum disorder and/or a related mental health disorder. With this thought in mind, the Aspire program was created to provide students with the opportunity to participate in a college campus experience, and to develop social, academic, and emotional skills to be successful.

The Aspire program kicked off its first-ever session this summer, August 5-10, with collaboration between the Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU), West Chester University (WCU), and various community agencies.

“This program has been over a year in the making and was created based on student need,” said Laurie Masino, CCIU Community Based Instruction Supervisor. “School districts are finding that they have students who are academically on-target, but need to develop other skills that are required in order to be successful in college.”

The Aspire program is designed for college-bound students, ages 17-20, in Chester County and neighboring areas, who have a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder and/or a related mental health disorder such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar.

The program that was offered this summer featured a one-credit college course, five nights/six days in a college “dorm” setting, community-based activities, leisure activities, and skills seminars.

“The students learn strategies for coping with stressful environments and situations on an individual basis,” said Lisa Tzanakis, CCIU Community Based Instruction Supervisor. “We also focus on helping students understand expectations for safety related to independent living, on-campus housing and accessing the community, as well as developing executive function skills.”

Some of the executive function skills mentioned by Tzanakis include time management, organization, and planning of assignments.

Students enrolled in the summer session and their families also took part in a “summer preview day” prior to the start of the program where they were able to visit the dorms in which they will be staying, meet program staff, learn more about the program and ask questions.

According to the mother of a student enrolled in the program, which took place mainly at West Chester University and the surrounding community, the fact that the program is local can be a relief for parents who desire additional opportunities for their child, but are unsure of sending their child a long distance from home in order to do so.

“I just think of it in the way that if you want your child to move on to the next level, he or she needs to take part in programs such as this that provide a safe way for such bright kids to explore the world in broader terms,” said the parent. “If, for some reason, the student has an unbearable experience, it’s local!”

“From the parents who are looking for a college campus experience for their student, to the students who will be moving on to college, to the school districts who recognize students who could utilize these supports, to the colleges who will be accepting the students – the program is beneficial for everyone involved,” said Masino.

In fact, according to Masino, the response for the program has been so positive that it has already transitioned from being strictly a summer program, to a program that will also be offered during the school year.

The school year version of the program will offer two options: a full-day option where students will take part in Aspire activities throughout the entire day, and a half-day option for students who attend high school half-day in order to finish high school course requirements, then spend the other half of the day with the Aspire program.

The program beginning this fall will follow the typical school year calendar and will offer many of the same supports as the summer program.

“Students will have the opportunity to earn three college credits through the traditional school year program, as well as take part in a work experience component which is not offered in the summer program,” said Masino. “It will also include activities offered in the summer program that are aimed at developing executive functioning skills, as well as leisure and community-based activities, and academic support and instruction.”

Masino noted that as of now, the school year program would not include the overnight dorm experience offered in the summer, however additional activities could be added as the program progresses.

Students can become a part of the program through school district referral.

For more information on the program, please contact Laurie Masino at 484-237-5140 or by email.