Worries cloud program for disabled at C of C Parents say REACH has serious administrative, academic flaws

Sam Hazeltine looks at gifts he has been given for graduation after completing four years in the College of Charleston’s REACH program.

Cate Cusick and David Hazeltine thought they would be elated when their son, who has Down syndrome, graduated from the College of Charleston through a special program called REACH, for students with mild intellectual disabilities.

But as their son Sam Hazeltine’s graduation day approaches, their feelings are a mixed bag.

Sam, 25, will receive a certificate in health and human performance. He learned to live on his own, use public transportation and made friends. And unlike a lot of new graduates, he already has a job lined up.

But some of those successes happened in spite of, not because of, the Realizing Educational and Career Hopes, or REACH, program, which was launched at the college five years ago, the James Island couple said. They have serious concerns about the academic quality of the program, which is supposed to modify courses and grades based on students’ abilities. But when they brought those concerns to program and school leaders, they were dismissed as “helicopter parents,” they said.

“We were told we were inhibiting his development,” David Hazeltine said.

Theodore Raczka, whose son Matthew, 25, is graduating with a certificate in public health, said he thinks the program is disorganized, which can be detrimental to students. When his wife complained about a delay in his son getting a tutor for a chemistry course, she was criticized in an email for her tone and told her son was “free to leave the college or transfer to other programs like REACH at other institutions.”

“We had a lot of frustrations with the administration,” said Raczka, who is from Middletown, Conn.

Both parents said they ended up finding and paying tutors to help their children, even though that is a service the program is supposed to provide.

David Hazeltine said he considered taking legal action. But that would be a long and expensive process, he said. So instead, he decided to speak out about problems with the program, and he hopes the school will make some changes. “We want them to evaluate what’s going on.”

College of Charleston provost Brian McGee said federal law prohibits him from commenting on specific students, but he denied allegations about academic shortcomings in the REACH program. It’s a well-designed, rigorous program, he said, but it isn’t perfect and sometimes mistakes are made. Program staffers learn from those mistakes and make changes, he said.

“We knew a lot going in, and we have learned a lot along the way,” he said. “Our error rate is greater than zero.”

Students in the four-year program take some academic classes with traditional students. They also receive career counseling, have internships and get on-the-job training. They start out living in a small dorm where about half of the residents are traditional students. Some of the REACH students move on to other campus housing. They learn independent living skills, such as basic cooking and money management. And they learn how to better function socially among their peers.

Families pay a lot for those services. Tuition is about $16,000 for South Carolina residents and $24,000 for out-of-state students, and room and board adds about another $10,000 to the annual bill. There’s also a program fee, which is $3,300 for students who live on campus and $1,600 for those who live off-campus.

Tuition for traditional students is $10,558 for South Carolina residents and $27,548 for out-of-state students.

REACH is one of five such programs in the state, and one of more than 200 nationwide.

Hazeltine and Cusick said their complaints about the program include:

Professors not being appropriately trained to incorporate students with special needs in classes.

Course content not being adequately modified so Sam could grasp the material.

Internship assignments that failed to move their son forward in his area of interest.

Tutors who did not adequately help their son.

An inappropriate grading system, where students take the same tests as traditional students and the grades are adjusted after they are posted.

McGee said all professors and tutors who serve REACH students are trained. Professors sometimes have scheduling conflicts and are unable to attend a group training session. But in those cases they receive training individually. He also said all course content is modified based on student’s abilities, and students are assigned a variety of internships so they learn different things.

On grading, he said REACH students at times take the same multiple-choice tests as traditional students, but only certain questions are counted in their grade. If the initial grade for the whole test ends up being posted, that’s a mistake.

But that’s not what happened in Sam’s case, said Martine Boudreaux, director of the Options program for special needs students at Bishop England High School, from which Sam graduated. She is one of several people who worked with the college to launch REACH.

She attended a meeting with program officials and Sam’s parents in March to advocate on Sam’s behalf about a sports psychology course in which he was struggling, she said. Edie Cusack, the program director, told them that the course and the tests Sam had to take weren’t being modified, and that his grades were being posted and then changed after the fact by some unspecified formula.

Cusack said that system was a solid educational practice backed up by research, Boudreaux said. But she doesn’t think it is.

“We asked for the research multiple times, but haven’t seen it,” Boudreaux said.

In the meantime, Sam would go look up his grades and was devastated when he saw the initial version of his grade report.

“He was very frustrated and confused about what was expected of him. He felt like a failure. He was so frustrated he was about to give up,” Boudreaux said.

Raczka said that two years in a row his son Matthew in November enrolled in and paid for a spring-semester course only to learn in January that he couldn’t take the course.

The first year, the school told him his son was scheduled for too many credits, so he couldn’t take a biology lab. The second year, he was told his son couldn’t take the chemistry lab he had registered for because it could be dangerous for a REACH student; Matthew eventually was allowed to take the course three weeks after it began.

But Matthew loved the program and thrived in it, Raczka said. And he’s starting a summer internship the Monday after he graduates working in the kitchens at Walt Disney World in Orlando. He hopes eventually to land a job in Disney’s safety and health department.

Raczka said he would recommend to other parents of young adults with intellectual disabilities that their children attend a college program with traditional students. But despite Matthew’s success in REACH, Raczka said, he likely wouldn’t recommend the REACH program. “I think they need to sharpen their pencil on how they do business.”

And while Hazeltine, Cusick and Raczka have complaints about the program, Brett Borton, whose son Evan just completed his freshman year, said his family’s experience with REACH has been overwhelmingly positive. He considered many different programs before enrolling his son, Borton said, but he chose REACH because it offered the best services.

“It’s everything we hoped it would be,” he said.

Borton, a Hilton Head Island resident, is married to Sara Johnson Borton, publisher of The State, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette newspapers.

Evan’s professors have been great working with REACH students, Brett Borton said. And the program has been great for his son’s self-esteem.

“He feels like a college student,” Borton said. “We’re very thankful.”

Donald Bailey, executive director of College Transition Connection, a group that works with some South Carolina colleges and universities to create and fund programs for young adults with intellectual disabilities, said he hasn’t heard a lot of complaints about any of the state’s five programs, which in addition to the College of Charleston are based at the University of South Carolina and Clemson, Winthrop and Coastal Carolina universities. But he’s not involved in their daily operations.

It’s important to remember that these programs still are new, and mistakes will be made along the way, he said. “But we’re never going to make everybody happy.”

His concern about the College of Charleston’s program is the number of out-of-state students, he said. Twenty-nine students were enrolled last fall, and 19 of them came from outside South Carolina.

Despite challenges with the REACH program, Sam Hazeltine is graduating Friday.

This summer, he will start a job with GenMove, a company that promotes exercise and movement for youth and adults, even if they’re not athletically gifted. He was an intern at the company for four semesters while enrolled in REACH.

Sam will be coaching children in soccer camps, using power tools to create special playing-field equipment, and training children and teachers to use it. He also will serve as the company’s ambassador to the special-needs community, said GenMove co-founder Nick Kalisperis. “He brings a lot of life to the organization. He lightens up the room.”

Sam is a lot like the rest of the students who will graduate from the College of Charleston this weekend. He studied hard over the past four years, scaling academic cliffs he never thought he could master, ate a lot of junk food, loved campus parties and even failed a course.

He faced some challenging times over the years, he said, during which he would call home and talk to his father for encouragement. Those conversations usually ended with his father saying “HHH,” their code for keep your head high like a Hazeltine.

And like other students, he’s sometimes scared about the future. “I just want to keep learning,” Sam said.

Reach Diane Knich at 8937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.