WASHINGTON, DC — When Mr. Smith went to Washington immutable principles guided the idealistic freshman senator’s steps and speechifying to Congressional leaders.
“Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!”
In a way, the delegation of administrators, current and graduated students, and parents, led by Beacon College President George Hagerty, channeled a bit of Jefferson Smith during its visit Feb. 10 to Capitol Hill. Through a Beacon-led congressional briefing and a series of legislative meetings, the group labored to bring to light the matchlessness of Beacon College and help Congress see the growing, but largely ignored need for federal support for students with learning disabilities who pursue higher education.
While a 2011 report from the National Center for Special Education Research found that only 19 percent of young adults with disabilities enroll in a four-year college or university, the numbers for the learning disabled are rising. That fact slams into the reality that U.S. colleges are operating for the third year under an expired Higher Education Act.
That should cause pause, declares a January Telegraph Herald editorial, which pointed out the HEA “authorizes the entire student loan system, Pell grants that help low- and middle-income students with tuition, programming to assist teachers in preparedness and multiple other programs that help make higher education a reality for disadvantaged students.”
Against that uncertain backdrop, Alex Perry and Hadley Sosnoff of The Majority Group coordinated the D.C. visit. The eclectic contingent included Eileen Marinakis, Trustees chair; Tim Peckinpaugh, a Beacon parent; Steve Muller, vice president of institutional development and communications; Dr. Andrea Brode, dean of student success; Darryl E. Owens, director of communication; students Brandon Peters and Jeunesse Smith; and Dr. Rosalyn Johnson, a 2009 alum.
Dr. Hagerty captured the enormity of the group’s moment on the eve of its Capitol Hill visit:
“Any institution of higher education would be proud to do what we’re about to do tomorrow — get the agenda of learning disabilities on the agenda of congress as it looks to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act,” he said. “It has been a largely ignored area. …If we can somehow influence federal legislation, we are going to accomplish a great deal for higher education in general, but Beacon College in particular.”
If the moment was huge, so were the performances.
In skull sessions with the legislative aides of congressional representatives Ted Deutch, Katharine Clark, and Dan Webster, the Beacon delegation contrasted the despair of K-12 schooling without appropriate support for students with learning disabilities with the hope of becoming educated and successful at Beacon College.
Dr. Hagerty told Deutch’s aide “the truth of the matter is our outcomes are three times the national average. I believe our focus and system of support makes all the difference.”
Peters, diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, corroborated Dr. Hagerty’s belief, recounting the years where real support was AWOL.
“The support system in K-5 was there, but when you get to middle school and high school it slowly slips away,” Peters recalled, noting the vacuum worsened in community college.
“There was no support system whatsoever,” he said. “If you needed assistance, you carry your own umbrella.”
As to why Beacon succeeds where others fail — federal numbers put Beacon’s graduation rate at 83 percent — Dr. Brode summed it up:
“Total focus, learning support — it works.”
Later that morning, after Rep. Webster prefaced the congressional briefing by declaring of Beacon there is “nothing like it in the world,” the panelists continued their educational offensive. Congressional staffers and Rep. Webster listened as panelists shared their struggles, hard choices and inspirational turnarounds at Beacon College.
Smith, diagnosed with ADHD and a speech impediment, reflected on her time at Beacon.
“I have grown in two years. I would never have thought I would be a peer tutor, or a teacher’s assistant or a student ambassador … knowing my learning differences. I just want to let you know that if you have a learning disability and you’re by yourself, it’s okay because you learn to advocate for yourself.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Johnson shared her journey from life as a preemie who K-5 teachers believed mentally deficient to becoming Beacon’s first PH.D. — at age 28.
“I thank Beacon for helping me become so successful because the school kind of helped instill in me the self-confidence that I was going be successful and not let my learning disability limit me.”
Peckinpaugh went next, fighting through emotion, to share a note penned by his son James, who struggles with auditory processing issues.
“Being at Beacon has shown me ways to manage myself through tough times, ways to puzzle my thoughts back together from bad days and times of regret and find the … knowledge that if I just keep moving forward no matter what happens to [me]. I finally feel like I can do anything with my life, have a great life and maybe change the world.”
That, Peckinpaugh declared, “is the Beacon story.”
However, he wasn’t finished, issuing a charge to Congress.
“The whole area of learning disabilities is K-12. That’s it. It’s time that federal policy [includes] programs that Beacon College has pioneered at the higher education level as well.”
Marinakis closed out the presentations, sharing the story of how Beacon helped transform her son Christopher from a reluctant driver to a road warrior.
“What I’m telling you is that, as wonderful as our academic programs are, and learning specialists are, there’s something magical about the environment when you’re surrounded by other students who have walked the walk that you have walked.”
That afternoon, when Beacon delegation members met with Webster’s legislative aide, he assured them that “whatever you think the need step is, we want to help you get there.”
With any luck, Congress will invite Dr. Hagerty and the Beacon model to the conversation.