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New inclusive post-secondary education program at Georgia Southern takes flight

This fall, EAGLE Academy welcomed its first two students as fully enrolled Georgia Southern University undergraduates. An inclusive post-secondary education (IPSE) program, the Academy offers Equal Access to Gainful Learning and Employment (EAGLE) for those with mild intellectual disabilities.

What started as a ‘aha’ moment in spring 2013, grew from a dream to a passion and now reality for the College of Education’s Shelley Woodward, special education instructor and founding executive director for the Academy.

“During a candidate visit to campus, the faculty member discussed ClemsonLIFE, and that’s when we realized that programs like this existed,” said Woodward.

At the time, Georgia only had one fully operational IPSE program located at Kennesaw State University. Woodward attended the Inclusive Higher Education Conference in fall 2013, and realized she was not going to be able to let this dream go.

“I couldn’t stop talking about it,” she said. “My brain wouldn’t stop.”

The next four years were spent writing grants, visiting other IPSE programs, holding meetings and working long hours to make this program a reality alongside EAGLE Academy Program Director Karen Phipps.

“Nothing about this has been easy,” said Woodward.

“But it’s worth it,” added Phipps. “It’s worth all of it.”

EAGLE Academy is now the eighth IPSE program in the state of Georgia. The Georgia Southern program is unique in many aspects including that it offers the third and fourth years for students who have already completed an initial two-year program at another institution such as East Georgia State College.

“We are one of the only IPSE programs that is starting with years three and four,” said Phipps. “This allows students to transfer into our program, and we have a collaboration with East Georgia State that allows those students to feed into our program if they choose.”

EAGLE Academy also offers their students a custom-built academic program based on their interests. Currently, the program includes two students–Kasey and Sharaun. Both previous students from East Georgia State’s IPSE program, CHOICE, they are currently taking courses in the areas in which they hope to have future careers.

Sharuan wants to work in graphic design, and is taking an introductory digital art and design course, while Kasey is considering a career in recreational activities with disabled children or nursing home residents and is taking an introductory therapeutic recreation course this fall.

“EAGLE Academy is thinking outside of the box,” explained Phipps. “We create a program based on the student. This gives our students the same opportunity every other student has in this country. They can be productive members of society, but they need to be trained just like anyone else.”

Students attending Georgia Southern through the EAGLE Academy program also have the opportunity to become fully-ingrained in campus life. Both Kasey and Sharaun live in on-campus housing where they can easily access academic buildings and campus events.

As a part of the EAGLE Academy program, students also train for employment through internships or paid jobs. Kasey is working in childcare at the First United Methodist Preschool while Sharaun is employed with Walmart Distribution Center.

The Academy is also incorporated into the undergraduate education curriculum for special education and dual certification (early childhood and special education) degree programs. Students taking assessment courses in these majors are introduced to the EAGLE Academy teaching philosophy and process. They are also given the opportunity to volunteer to work with the Academy’s enrolled students to serve as peer coaches, academic mentors and social mentors.

“Often these students will just stop by the Academy and check in to see how the students are doing and how the program is going,” said Woodward. “They are invested and want to see both the EAGLE Academy and our students succeed because they know how important a program like this is for students who have disabilities.”

Phipps and Woodward explained that there are 700 graduating high school students in the state that qualify for IPSE programs.

“That’s why it is so important that we keep talking about this program and the vision we have,” said Woodward.

EAGLE Academy is currently taking fall-only admission applications. For the future, they hope to expand the program to include the initial first and second years for their program as well as pursue dual enrollment options. Long-term goals also include expansion to additional campuses.

“How do you sell this program?,” Phipps asked rhetorically. “You don’t. These students sell this program when they go home and say ‘I want to go to college, and now I can. Here’s how.’”

To operate, EAGLE Academy utilizes a five-year Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID) grant they received from the U.S. Department of Education starting October 1, 2015. For tuition assistance, the academy has also partnered with the Statesboro branch of Synovus (formerly Sea Island Bank).

“We couldn’t do this without the incredible support we have had from the College of Education, especially COE Dean Koballa, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Teacher Education and Accreditation Deborah Thomas and Department of Teaching and Learning Chair Bruce Field, as well as the generous financial support from our partners at Synovus,” said Woodward.

For additional information about EAGLE Academy, visit http://coe.georgiasouthern.edu/eagle-academy/ or follow them on facebook (@EAGLEAcademyatGeorgiaSouthern) or twitter (@EAGLEAcademy4).

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