By Richard Burnett
From Disney to Broadway, high students from across the country found new avenues of creativity during the 2021 edition of Summer for Success, Beacon College’s annual summer college immersion program.
Joanna Shang of Baltimore, Md. and her team envisioned a new theme park where everything is based on colorful villains of Disney lore. Bill Gordon of Dallas, Tx. helped make history come alive in an original musical. And Manuel Frangis of Atlanta, Ga. peered behind the curtain of Broadway to see what makes Hamilton and Les Misérables tick.
They were among the more than 100 high school students and rising first-year college students with learning disabilities who attended Beacon’s Summer for Success program for a taste of the collegiate experience. The 2021 edition, which ended July 30, drew a record turnout — a result of pent-up demand after last year’s all-virtual event amid the pandemic restrictions.
While mask-wearing and other precautions remained in place this year, the summer school scholars still were abuzz about taking in-person classes, meeting new friends, and experiencing other benefits of being together in school.
For Gordon, who will be a Beacon freshman in the fall, everything about the summer session was interesting and fun — especially the people.
“I would say the most fun part about being here is actually putting names to faces, instead of just seeing them on the computer screen,” he said. “It’s been nice to interact with students and teachers, person-to-person, rather than over a Zoom call.”
For students with learning differences, however, the excitement of social interaction in a college setting sometimes spills over into anxiety amid their first experience of independence, said Dana Manzo, Beacon’s director of counseling and the clinical coordinator of Summer for Success.
“We often see a lot of intense emotions here because it’s all so new to them and they don’t know to cope with it,” she said. “One of the great things about this program is that we are prepared for all of that. We engage with them in the moment when they are experiencing these intense emotions, and we are able to teach them the coping skills they need.”
Program organizers say they have covered all the bases to meet the students’ unique needs. Alex Morris-Wood, Beacon’s director of transition services and outreach, plans the structure and strategy of the program, which he launched in 2018. On the academic side, Dr. Oksana Hagerty, director of the Center for Student Success, designed the curriculum.
Overall, the college established a robust summer school staff including 35 teachers, administrators, counselors, and support workers. Its varied menu of course offerings included math and writing strategies, web design, wildlife conservation, independent living skills, and much more.
One of the most popular hits of the session was a new course — The Imagination Experience, a multidisciplinary learning experience centered on Disney. Through classroom study and field trips to the Orlando parks, students energized their minds, while also having fun, said Rose DeJarnett, developer and instructor of the course, and a Beacon reading and literacy professor.
“The subject is so engaging to the students,” she said. “I can embed instruction in reading, writing, critical thinking, cooperative learning — all the skills that we look for in our freshmen students and can build on throughout their years. Sometimes, they are so interested in the subject, they don’t even realize the hard work they are doing.”
For the social side, organizers raised an expanded student activities center — an air-conditioned tent — to accommodate the larger than expected summer turnout. From video games to ping pong, cookouts to concerts, the center attracted large crowds and played a key role in the students’ socialization at the college level.
“There’s really no other program in the country like this for these students,” Morris-Wood said. “Our philosophy is that this is not just about getting college credit, but much more about learning and immersing yourself in college life. We recognize the students are smart, but they’ve never had independent living skills practice. So here, we basically mimic college to give them that experience.”