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Alexander Wood - 2020 LDA Conference
Alexander Morris-Wood discusses Beacon College’s high school transition programs a the 57th Annual Learning Disabilities Association of America’s International Conference.

By Dan Wine

Students with learning disabilities who go on to attend college face a number of daunting challenges, but collaboration, providing support, and building skills and confidence are a few of the keys to helping them succeed.

Alexander Morris-Wood, director of transition services and outreach at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla. shared his expertise and advice during the Learning Disabilities Association of America’s 57th Annual International Conference at the Orlando World Center Marriott.

Hundreds of parents, educators, adults with learning disabilities and professionals gathered for the four-day conference, which featured more than 150 sessions focusing on challenges, opportunities and best practices. The theme of this year’s meeting, which ran from Feb. 17-20, was “Building Connections: Making Equity Accessible.”

Morris-Wood talked about “Bridging the Gap From High School to College” and the importance of proactive transition planning to reduce attrition.

“My job is to be the in-betweener of high school and college,” he said. “I feel like there’s so much out there that we could all be doing if we worked a little more collaboratively and a lot less in silos.”

A key part of Beacon College’s success is Navigator PREP, which Morris-Wood developed as the country’s first virtual transition-to-college program for students with learning disabilities as well as their parents. The program — typically three, six or nine months — emphasizes a personalized approach to build relationships and confidence.

“Our goal is to really bridge that gap between what their current environment is now and where they’re going to next, between acceptance and matriculation,” said Morris-Wood, who has a background in mental-health counseling.

Beacon also offers a three-week immersion program called Summer for Success, which is designed for rising high school juniors and seniors. The goal is to help students develop the skills, confidence and preparation they need for a smoother transition from high school to college.

Morris-Wood said some students decide not to attend college because they can’t afford it. But for students with learning disabilities, the reason is often that they’re not ready, which can create a domino effect.

“Instead of going to a four-year college, they might go to a two-year college,” he said. “Instead of a two-year college, they might go to a work-study or a transitional program.”

Morris-Wood talked about the “gray area,” the critical time after students have been accepted to college and before they start classes. For those who learn differently, this time is even more crucial because of all the planning and paperwork required.

“Think about what’s going on in your school between acceptance and matriculation, besides celebration,” he said. “It’s awesome that we celebrate students getting into college, but that’s fleeting, and it’s not work.”

An audience member noted parallels between some students she works with and the Netflix show “Atypical,” about a teenager named Sam who has autism spectrum disorder and a desire for more independence so he can start dating and attend college.

Finding the right school can be a tough task, and Morris-Wood developed a College Match Scale to help students and parents. The scale has four levels and looks at depth of academic services, accessibility of accommodations, availability of academic support, mental-health services, social services and 10 essential questions to ask.

Access to mental-health counseling and psychiatric care is vital, he said.

“The worst thing you can do is have a physical outburst on a campus,” Morris-Wood said. “That is grounds for immediate removal right off the bat.”

It’s important to show students what their college schedule will look like and how they can manage unstructured time so they don’t procrastinate and fall into the “I’ll do it later” trap.

“They’re in high school for eight hours a day,” Morris-Wood said. “Then you’re going to college, where you’re sitting in class for one hour a day. They’ve never had the practice of how to manage unstructured time. And that’s all college is.”

Featured speakers included John B. King Jr., president and CEO of The Education Trust, a national nonprofit organization that seeks to identify and close opportunity and achievement gaps; and Dr. Mary Brownell, a special-education professor at the University of Florida and director of the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform Center.

Next year’s Learning Disabilities Association of America conference will be in New Orleans.

For more information on Beacon College’s transition programs, Alexander Morris-Wood can be reached at 352-638-9777 or amorriswood@beaconcollege.edu.