Grant aimed at improving outcomes for students with intellectual disabilities in rural school districts

Former University Participant Program student Paige Soderman is spotted playing her guitar in her room at Blue Ridge Hall earlier this year. Soderman completed the program last May and is now working in the bakery at the Publix grocery store in Asheville. Improving outcomes for individuals with intellectual disabilities in regards to employment and independent living is the focus of a new grant-funded academic program at WCU.

Western Carolina University faculty members Kelly Kelley and David Westling say they have learned a lot about assisting individuals with intellectual disabilities as they transition into the world of work and independent living over the past decade through the University Participant Program that they co-direct on campus.

But, now it’s time to spread that information to underserved rural school districts across the state through a new academic program designed to support professional educators in those districts as they work to ease the transition for that same category of students.

To accomplish that, Westling, WCU’s Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor of Special Education, and Kelly Kelley, associate professor of inclusive and special education, will be using a new five-year $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to fund an online master’s degree program called “Roads to Learning and Earning.”

David Westling

“When you examine the outcomes for high school students with intellectual disabilities, you find that they’re not very good,” Westling said. “They tend to not get employed in their communities and to not to live on their own, and those are two important measures of success. So, we decided that maybe one way to improve the situation is to help personnel in these school districts upgrade their skills in the transition area.”

An initial cohort of 14 to 18 part-time graduate students, expected to include primarily special education teachers in four to six rural school districts, is being recruited now to enroll in the first program course that will be offered in the spring semester, Westling said. A second cohort will be enrolled after the first group of students finish the program in several years. Sixty-five percent of the grant funds is allocated toward providing stipends to the students to offset the cost of the program, he said. All graduates will be expected to fulfill service obligation agreements to work as special education teachers, transition specialists or related service providers in rural school districts.

WCU’s University Participant Program is a fully inclusive, two-year post-secondary education program for college-age individuals with an intellectual disability. Designed to facilitate the students’ transition to independent living and work, the program began in 2007 with one students enrolled. Twenty-three students have now completed the program and eight students are currently enrolled. UP students pay the same tuition and fees as other students as they live in campus residence halls, audit three to four classes each semester, work at least 10 hours per week in internships or paid jobs, and participate in campus and community social activities.

“It’s because of what we’ve learned from the UP Program that we are receiving this grant,” Westling said. “When we consider the successes of our UP students and what they have accomplished through that program, and the considerable work Kelly has done to promote those good outcomes, we realize that we’ve learned some things and we can take that to the public school teachers as a way to improve the situation for many more students across the state.”

Kelly Kelley

Federal law requires that an individual transition plan be developed for each student with an intellectual or developmental disability before that person reaches age 16, Kelley said. “The question is, how do we go beyond that piece of paper, the transition plan, to make it really happen?” she said. “That’s what we’re focused on – trying to promote effective practices to improve outcomes for all these students and make that piece of paper come to life.”

WCU already offers two types of master’s degrees in special education, the master of arts in education and the master of arts in teaching. Students in the new program can seek either degree, but all of them will be trained through an adaptive curriculum that focuses on working with students with severe disabilities.

Among the lessons learned through the UP Program is the necessity of organizing an interagency collaboration and “a lot of teamwork” to develop a good support system for the students, Kelley said. Getting vocational rehabilitation and employment specialists onboard is vital, along with battling the sometimes low expectations of teachers and parents, she said.

Westling and Kelley received a three-year grant from the N.C. Council on Developmental Disabilities in 2013 to work with middle and high schools in sharing information and resources aimed at improving student outcomes for the same group of students. “We decided to include that aspect in this new program because it’s important for school districts,” Westling said. They also decided to use the same name for the new personnel preparation program.

For more information about the Roads to Learning and Earning Program, contact Westling at or 828-227-3287, or Kelley at or 828-227-3298.