When Regina Watts arrived in 2008, Albany Technical College didn’t have an inclusive post-secondary education (IPSE) program. Watts had worked in the disability space for over a decade prior, and she wrote the idea for an inclusive program down on an initial list of goals. “I wanted to create a program for those students that would possibly not have the opportunity to go to college.”
Six years later, Watts still had the piece of paper, and she began to connect with other administrators across the state as other programs got their start. Eventually she received money through a federally funded grant to gauge interest. With help from the Georgia Inclusive Postsecondary Education Consortium (GAIPSEC), as well as many other people, grants, agencies and institutions, Watts created the Leveraging Education for Advancement Program (LEAP), which is entering its fifth academic year.
“Everything just fell in place with the grant, where we were able to see if there was a need, and most definitely there was a need,” Watts said. “It’s been a wonderful process of getting the program sustained and established.”
Watts is now the special needs/disability services coordinator at Albany Tech and the director of LEAP. There are nine IPSE programs in the state of Georgia, but LEAP is the only one hosted by a technical school, where extra emphasis is given to hands-on education and practical experience.
At LEAP, students with disabilities take courses with peers and receive support through mentorship. Students can enter the program at the start of the fall, spring or summer semesters, and they typically take one course per semester. After two years, students earn a certificate and graduate with their class.
Students enrolled in the program typically complete a Business Office Assistant certificate, a credential approved by the Technical College System of Georgia and made up of six courses also available to Albany Tech’s larger student population. Watts says taking classes with peers and working with the program’s mentor-tutors allows for a holistic college experience built on education and socialization. “They are truly exposed to a lot,” said Watts.
Recently, the school’s board approved for Watts to offer 15 other certificates that students had expressed interest in. The fall 2020 semester is the first time a student has registered for a certification other than Business Office Assistant. The student registered for an Infant/Toddler Child Care Specialist certificate, and her ultimate goal is to work at a daycare.
“Students that probably would not have had an opportunity to go to college can come to the LEAP program and get what they need academically, socially and mentally as well — get the tools that [will] help them go into the world of independent living,” Watts said.
Despite the disruptions of COVID-19, there are currently seven students enrolled in LEAP. One of the students is currently completing his last course, and the program welcomed two new students this semester, one of whom is a dual-enrolled high school student.
Watts personally called each student entering the program on the phone ahead of the semester to present their family with options. Three of the students in LEAP are attending virtually, and four students are taking classes on campus.
Under normal circumstances, students in LEAP take classes on campus in Albany. Students in the program are exposed to a variety of experiences, including conferences, internships, volunteering and job-shadowing. They also work closely with the Career Services Office, where they create resumes and complete mock interviews. COVID-19 has disrupted many of these opportunities, but the work hasn’t stopped by any means.
The program currently has two mentor-tutors available to students for personalized assistance, one on campus and one virtual. Watts says that virtual learning is as inclusive as it can be, but she’s currently working out ways to create a more fulfilling and effective digital experience with virtual tours and workshops.
Under Watts’ direction, the program has been able to leverage its position at a small, technical college to best accommodate those it serves. She hopes to keep it small and flexible, so the program can continue providing students with thoughtful, personalized services.
“I want to give an example of my very first student,” said Watts.
“We started the program with one student, and that was very wise. He is the innovator in the video on my webpage. He blossomed into the person that was able to create a video, to be a part of the video that introduces what the LEAP program is all about. I am just so happy to be able to help someone to achieve their dreams.”
Since then, Watts has used her passion to continually improve the program and adapt to new challenges. “It is definitely a rewarding experience for me as well. To be a vehicle that can help an individual to better their lives,” she said.
by Clay Voytek