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Savannah State University

By Richard Burnett

Alexander Morris-Wood Alex Morris-Wood mesmerized a conference of student advisers in March with his talk about helping students navigate college life. Beacon College’s director of transition services won “best in show” for his presentation, “Factors Contributing to Poor Retention for Students with Learning Differences.”

In the audience, Danita Townsend hung on Morris-Wood’s every word at the regional conference of the National Academic & Advising Association (NACADA). As Savannah State University’s head of student retention, she had worked for years on programs to help students overcome obstacles and succeed in college. But she still felt something was missing.

“The more he talked about understanding the challenges many Beacon students face in college, the more I realized he was talking about our students too,” Townsend said recently. “While I knew we had made progress with our students, I felt that what Alex was talking about was the missing component.”

Danita Townsend After the conference, Townsend reached out to Morris-Wood and invited him to speak to Savannah State’s student advisers. That went so well, she went further, awarding him a grant to build a full semester-long course for advisers, tutors, testing staff, and other key faculty members. It is set to begin in August and run through December.

The Savannah State course is the first one in a long-term initiative by Beacon to share insights with colleges and high schools across the country, according to Morris-Wood. He and his team have spent the last three years developing a transition program for Beacon that could be customized for other schools.

“At Savannah State, we’ll be doing targeted programming to help their advisers and other specialists more critically evaluate students’ needs, understand a student’s individual profile, and manage issues like learning style, emotional regulation, and general transition to help with their retention,” Morris-Wood said. “Our goal is to expand our knowledge base to other colleges and high schools so we can provide training for others in how to work with a diverse population of learners across the board.”

In recent years, Morris-Wood and Beacon’s transition services team have crafted a portfolio of transition programs to serve students from beginning to end — from college preparatory in high school to college graduation.

Navigator Prep, for example, is a virtual program for college-bound students and their parents to prepare a year before entering college. It is the first such program in the U.S. for students with learning differences that specifically works on executive functioning, social skills and emotional management. More than 300 students have now participated in the program, including Beacon and non-Beacon students.

Others include: Jump Start, an all-online course of study designed to give students who learn differently the opportunity to begin their college coursework at home — while still connecting socially with other students. Boost Virtual Summer, a course for empowering the digital learning skills of college-bound high school students with learning differences; and Summer for Success, another program for college-bound students, offering a variety of innovative courses such as web design and animal care along with writing, math, and SAT preparation.

“It is important that we take advantage of these opportunities such as the Savannah State program to share what Beacon is doing on a day-to-day basis,” Morris-Wood said. “It will increase the number of institutions that use this information and make a difference in the lives of so many more students.”