A hidden jewel on campus

Where The Learning Continues bolsters intellectually disabled.

Posted

From Sept. 24, 2021

Between Tex-Mex served in the second-floor lobby of Old Main and dessert served on the third floor an hour later, there was a parent orientation for families of several new students on the evening of Sept. 13. Not the usual freshmen orientation, but not totally different either.

To add to the importance of the event, WT President Walter V. Wendler was the first of seven who spoke to a mixture of parents and students.

“I’m proud of this program,” Wendler said. “It’s a jewel on campus, and I’m thankful for the work it does. This is a serious charge for this University. We want to do the best we can to honor you by honoring your children.”

The unique program is Where the Learning Continues at West Texas A&M University, which has provided a higher education experience for students with intellectual disabilities. The eight-semester program strengthens their academic and social skills and better prepares them for the job market.

As WTLC begins its 20th year, it’s even more a key component of the University. The program is under the umbrella of Extended Studies, which focuses on degree credit and non-credit courses for furthering careers and skills.

This is second year that the WTLC classroom is on the third floor of Old Main, a move Wendler made to symbolically signify the importance of the program. Students also will participate this year in two degree-classified courses – a communications disorder class taught by Landon Brown and wife Morgan from the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, and an adaptive physical education class for future teachers and WTLCA students taught by Dr. Trisha Brown.

“Our focus is on what these students want to be long-term,” Landon Brown said. “I love working with them. It is the highlight of our week. Their attitude is truly inspirational, and they have made a huge impact on us.”

The other major change is an Employment 101 class, 90 minutes each Monday. While students who complete eight semesters do participate in University commencement and receive a completion certificate degree, there is now an added emphasis on honing job and interview skills as more employers are making positions for the intellectually disabled available.

It is preparation for life after college and a career that is like mainstream students except on a different level.

“When we started this a long time ago, one of the things we said is that we didn’t want this to be just a college experience. We didn’t want it to be a warm and fuzzy thing that people could feel good about and pat ourselves on the back and say, ‘Man, we did something good,’” said Brad Thompson, co-founder of WTLC.

“We wanted it to be a place where our kids – they are always kids to me and that’s an endearing term – could continue to learn and continue to develop their social and independent skills to maximize their potential.”

With a freshman class of five, which is large, there currently are 11 students in the program. They are in class four days a week where they are taught math, science, writing, computers and social studies.

From 8 a.m. to noon Mondays, they study at the Harrington Academic Hall WTAMU Amarillo Campus. The remaining days are spent on the WT campus, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and a long day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays.

Pam Hicks has been the primary WTLC teacher since 2014. Prior to that, she had been involved with special education in the Highland Park Independent School District. Hicks heard Andrea Porter, director of Extended Studies, speak on WTLC at a conference at Region 16 learning center in Amarillo. Hicks felt an urge.

“I told Andrea if you ever need another teacher to let me know,” Hicks said. “Two months later, I saw her and she said that we need teachers in the fall. I prayed about it, and here I am.

“I love these kids and their personalities. There is no falseness about them. To see how excited they get when they learn is just heartwarming.”

Students must be between the ages of 18-23, have completed a four-year high school program, have minimal medical and no behavior issues, and a minimum level of independence. Tuition is $1,500 per semester.

Ariana Trevino, 20, is a freshman student who graduated from Tascosa High School. The youngest of five sisters, three of whom are WT graduates, Ariana’s goal is to work at Chick-fil-A. Her family believes the WTLC program will sharpen her job skills while broadening her knowledge.

“I like school and counting money,” Ariana said, “and I like riding the bus.”

Oh, yes, the bus. Students in Amarillo are provided transportation to and from campus through the Thunder Express, a bus in the Panhandle Transit system.

“The Thunder Express delivered her safely to school and back to very nervous parents,” wrote Monica Ybarra, older sister of Ariana, in an email to Toot ‘n Totum, sponsor of the Thunder Express. “We are thankful for this amazing program in our community and a big part that makes it possible is the transportation from Amarillo to Canyon.”

Thompson may not have imagined any of this – or for this long – when he and others had an idea for a program more than 20 years ago. Hali Thompson was born exactly 32 years ago – Sept. 13, 1989 – when he spoke to a large room full of parents at Old Main.

Brad and Karen Thompson noticed their daughter had some struggles and delays in learning as she grew older. Series of tests revealed intellectual disabilities.

“When we asked the diagnostician what this meant,” Thompson said, “she said, ‘Practically speaking, Hali will not graduate from high school. She will never graduate college. She will never leave home. She will never get married.’ Those are the generic dreams parents have for their children, so after hearing those, you ask, ‘What’s left?’”

A special education teacher in Canyon provided a ray of hope after some dark days. She talked about what Hali could do, not couldn’t. Then, a few years later while picking up their daughter at Reeves-Hinger Elementary School, they got some life-altering news from a teacher.

“Hali told me today that she is going to college,” Thompson was told. “You better get to work.”

The Thompsons did along with like-minded parents. They found a university wanting to make that part of campus life, and a business community and others to help fund it.

“I’m not sure any of us knew what we were doing,” Thompson said, “but the grace of God saw us through.”

And now, 20 years later, different parents with children of a similar challenged walk, are coming to WT.

“This is the greatest blessing of my life to watch what has happened here,” Thompson said at orientation. “You have no idea how rare these teachers are. They will pour and pour and dream and dream for your kid. Because of that, you are incredibly blessed.”

Do you know of a student, faculty member, project, an alumnus or any other story idea for “WT: The Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle?” If so, email Jon Mark Beilue at jbeilue@wtamu.edu .

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