Between entering a new environment, a schedule change, and an intense workload, the transition from high school to college can be difficult for the best of students.
These challenges can be especially intimidating for students with learning differences, who may need more support than the average college student.
In 2015 Melissa Zgliczynski was the Director of Disability Services at Villa Maria College in Buffalo, NY. She noticed that a handful of the College’s students were struggling to find their footing. “I was working with several smart, creative students who showed potential for success,” said Zgliczynski. “But because they were not receiving the same amount of support that they did in high school, they weren’t thriving.”
According to Zgliczynski, there was a clear need for ongoing support that her current department was not equipped to provide. “I noticed students getting frustrated because they wanted to meet expectations, but just couldn’t,” she said. “One tutoring session wasn’t enough to make an impact when challenges arose every class.”
From this observation, Villa’s Achieve Program for Students with Learning Differences was born.
“The Achieve Program’s mission is to provide specialized services to students with learning differences,” said Zgliczynski. “We look at students’ needs individually, and develop a plan to help ease their transition into college. Through the Achieve Program, students can build their confidence as they develop the skills that are critical for achieving academic and social successes at the collegiate level and beyond.”
The Achieve Program is headquartered in Felician Hall, one of three buildings on Villa’s Pine Ridge Road campus. It consists of tutoring rooms, quiet work and testing spaces, and a computer lab full of assistive technology.
“The assistive technology makes a major difference for our students,” said Zgliczynski. “We utilize Kurzweil, which is a text-to-speech literacy software that will read a website out loud. This is especially helpful for anyone with a reading disability, processing difficulties or any student who is an auditory learner.”
Villa also uses Dragon Naturally Speaking, a speech recognition software program. “Dragon is similar to Siri on your phone,” said Zgliczynski. “It’s much more accurate because it is trained to understand individual voices. This benefits students with a reading or writing disability, mobility issues or students who are unable to type at a college level and just need help getting their thoughts out of their head and on to paper.”
Livescribe Pens are also available to all Achieve students. “These pens are critical resources,” said Zgliczyski. “They can be used to record a professor during class or a tutor during a session. They come with a special notebook that, when tapped with the Livescribe pen, will jump to that specific part of the dictation.”
In addition to training its students to master the assistive technology, the Achieve Program offers group and individual tutoring sessions. “We staff professional tutors who are trained to work with students with learning differences and we build tutoring sessions right into the students’ class schedules so they can plan to be here each week,” explained Zgliczynski. “We offer both subject tutoring and time management sessions. Everything is very individualized and can be as fundamental as writing down all class assignments into a planner. We’ll also work with students to prioritize their workload appropriately.”
“Procrastination is another common challenge for most of our students,” continued Zgliczynski. “But we’ll find something that works for everyone, whether it’s as simple as color coding a schedule or something that requires a more in depth solution.”
While the assistive technology and the personalized tutoring sessions are major assets for students with learning differences, in Zgliczynski’s opinion, they are not what sets the Achieve Program apart.
“The biggest reason the Achieve Program has been so successful is because we have an open communication policy both with faculty and the students’ home support system,” she said. “Our faculty are quick to give us feedback. If something is working well, they let us know so we can continue to focus on that. If something goes wrong, they tell us that, too. It’s much easier to correct one missed assignment versus five. With their help, we can stay on top of any issues that arise. Our faculty members work diligently to create the best learning environment for all students.”
Once Achieve students sign the appropriate FERPA paperwork, Zgliczynski is able to communicate openly with their parents. “We take a team-oriented approach here,” she explained. “The students’ home support system can provide insight or suggest strategies that we may never think to try. They may know what works and what doesn’t before we do and it helps problem solve. When students succeed, we want to be able to share that, too.”
Now in its second full year, the Achieve Program has already shown some impressive results. From the fall 2015 semester to the beginning of the fall 2016 semester, the Achieve Program has seen a retention rate of 71%. In the spring 2016 semester, 79% of Achieve students maintained a GPA of 2.0 or higher. In the fall 2016 semester, 86% of Achieve students had a cumulative GPA of 2.0 or higher, and 38% earned a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher.
“My learning differences made it challenging for me to understand everything I was being taught. Achieve gave me the opportunity to continue to get the help I had been used to receiving in high school at the college level. Because of my drive to do well, and with the help of the tutors in the Achieve Program, I’m on my way to attaining my goals while maintaining a 3.2 GPA or higher grade until graduation. Through the school’s and Achieve’s help, I know I will soon have a successful Graphic Arts/Creative Writing career.”
– Rebecca Kendall, ‘20
Most importantly, the students feel like their success is possible. Among them is Rebecca Kendall, a first-year Graphic Design major. “My learning differences made it challenging for me to understand everything I was being taught,” she said. “Achieve gave me the opportunity to continue to get the help I had been used to receiving in high school at the college level. Because of my drive to do well, and with the help of the tutors in the Achieve Program, I’m on my way to attaining my goals while maintaining a 3.2 GPA or higher grade until graduation. Through the school’s and Achieve’s help, I know I will soon have a successful Graphic Arts/Creative Writing career.”