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Educating Out of the Box

Daniel Goodman is one of the 2,000 students DU's LEP program has served in its 25 years. Photo illustration: Wayne Armstrong and Craig Korn

In June 2007, Daniel Goodman proudly participated in University of Denver Commencement exercises, claiming his hard-earned degree in hotel, restaurant and tourism management.

For Daniel, the degree represented more than an academic accomplishment. It provided tangible testimony of his identity as a person with abilities, not just disabilities. And as he sees it, much of the credit goes to DU’s Learning Effectiveness Program, which supports students contending with all manner of learning disabilities and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Diagnosed in elementary school with both ADHD and problems decoding written materials, Daniel spent most of his pre-collegiate years in special schools or working with learning disability specialists. None of these experiences prepared him for work at the college level. “The problem was,” he recalls, “I didn’t have any behavioral disabilities, and the teachers had to focus a lot on the students with behavior disabilities.” As a result, much of what he knew about achieving academically and studying effectively were garnered through trial and error.

After a stint at a community college in his home state of Illinois, Daniel decided to transfer to DU, largely because of the LEP’s nationwide reputation for personal attention and innovative support. Had he opted for his other preference, Daniel doubts he would have graduated. “The University of Illinois has a 55,000 student body, and I knew I would get eaten alive there. There was no way I could go anywhere without some sort of support,” he says.

Looking back, that support was critical to his success. But just as important, he says, were the lessons he learned about advocating for himself. “Day one, they [the staff at LEP] said, ‘If you want help with something, you’re not going to get it unless you ask.'”

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Making a Difference

As it celebrates its 25th anniversary this fall, the Learning Effectiveness Program can take pride in the roughly 2,000 students it has served since its inception. Students like Daniel — intelligent young men and women with a documented history of learning disabilities.

In helping these students succeed at the university level, the LEP has provided transformative opportunities to a population once considered unlikely college material. “High school was almost seen as the terminal degree for a lot of these kids,” says University Disability Services Director Ted May.

And that was a tragedy, he says, for the individuals with disabilities and for the communities they belong to. By remedying that tragedy, LEP has done much to enrich DU’s academic community, introducing a population May characterizes as “quintessential out-of-the-box thinkers.” Simply by virtue of their challenges, May notes, these students approach academic projects from a different perspective.

“Students with disabilities are part of the future of diversity at DU,” he explains. “It’s all part of encouraging people who have been marginalized historically.”

LEP accomplishes this mission — encouraging and empowering — by pairing each LEP student with one of nine counselors who provide extensive one-on-one support. Counselors help students develop study strategies that compensate for their individual disabilities, whether these involve reading, listening, organizing information or comprehension. Just as important, counselors offer advice and suggestions on managing stress and coping with the wider population’s misconceptions about learning disabilities. LEP also sponsors a peer mentoring program.

While the fee-based LEP provides services beyond those required by law, DU’s Disability Services Program (DSP) provides basic accommodations, such as extended time testing or note-taking assistance, to some 700 students like Daniel with documented disabilities. The LEP and DSP often work in tandem, May says, to provide students with a seamless support network.

For Daniel, this approach made the difference between an academic experience characterized by enjoyable challenge and one tainted by stress and frustration. For example, extended time for testing allowed him to perform according to his abilities, and LEP counseling helped him develop skills to manage his anxiety about exams. “With my decoding problems, I’ll totally miss a whole line or a word [of a question]. That’s why true/false tests are the hardest for me. I have to read the questions three or four times to make sure I’m reading it right,” he says, noting that a test that other students could easily negotiate in two hours might take him five.

Perhaps most important, Daniel learned to communicate with professors about his disabilities, thus setting the stage for mutual respect. “I usually would go right away and tell the professor I have learning disabilities. I have extended test time. If you see me off in La-la Land, call me out, and I’ll come back to the real world,” he recalls.

As important as these services were to Daniel’s success, his mother, Ruth Goodman Blum, believes he also benefited from knowing that he was supported by concerned professionals and caring peers. “The LEP program gave Daniel a sense of community in a much larger setting. As a parent, I never felt that Daniel was falling through the cracks, as is so often the case with kids with learning difficulties,” she explains.

Thanks to its impressive track record (the average cumulative GPA for LEP students enrolled during fall quarter 2006 was 2.9) and an increasing number of students with learning disabilities matriculating into college, LEP has seen steady growth throughout the years. In fall of 1983, the LEP enrolled just seven students and was one of the first college-level programs in the nation offering support to students with learning disabilities. By 2006, the number of students enrolled in the LEP had jumped to 234.

In the coming years, LEP students will reap the advantages of a new location in the planned Katherine A. Ruffatto Hall, made possible by a $5 million donation from Joan and Mike Ruffatto in honor of their daughter, an LEP alumna. Housing the Morgridge College of Education, LEP, DSP and the Center for Multicultural Excellence, Ruffatto Hall will put state-of-the-art resources at the LEP’s disposal and give it room to implement new practices.

May also is excited about the future of a new partnership with the Learning Disabilities Association of Colorado, which provides internships for LEP students and is co-sponsoring a winter conference with LEP and the Morgridge College.

All of this, May explains, will allow the LEP to do what it does best: help students take charge of their success.

Daniel Goodman puts it in terms that speak directly to his peers. The LEP will teach you one essential, life-changing thing: “You really need to be a self-advocate. It’s not high school. Your mom is not there to fight your battles.”

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