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North Carolina community colleges expand programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities

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In January 2022, the General Assembly allocated $500,000 to establish pilots at Catawba Valley and Brunswick community colleges to provide career pathway opportunities to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

After the pilot served 157 students with IDD, lawmakers moved to expand the pilot — allocating nearly $4 million to offer the pilot at 15 community colleges. The expanded programs are set to launch this fall, State Board of Community Colleges Finance Committee Chair Lisa Estep said during the Board’s May meeting.

“A project like this has been a goal of mine for a very long time,” Estep said last fall. “Individuals with IDD face so many barriers to education and employment. Our system should be focused on removing those barriers. We are helping to build inclusive pathways for students with IDD that didn’t exist two years ago, and it is so exciting to be a part of that journey.”

On Thursday, Estep presented the N.C. Community College System’s (NCCCS) annual report on community college programs serving IDD students to the Board.

Thirty-two colleges, including Catawba Valley and Brunswick, submitted applications for the extended pilot funding, according to the annual report. In February, the Board approved an allocation of $266,450 to Catawba Valley and Brunswick and $194,000 to 13 additional colleges: Alamance, Asheville-Buncombe Technical, College of The Albemarle, Guilford Technical, James Sprunt, Johnston, McDowell Technical, Richmond, Robeson, Sandhills, South Piedmont, Stanly, and Wilkes community colleges.

The nearly $4 million allocated to the program will go toward hiring achievement counselors at the 15 colleges. The funds can also be spent on classroom materials, supplementary programming, a transportation study to determine barriers, and a two-year statewide marketing campaign.

“In compliance with Section 6.9 of Session law 2023-134, the program exists to a) provide opportunities for students to earn credentials and b) increase employment outcomes for students with IDD by supporting participating colleges in creating and improving educational components which include (a) employability skills, and (b) work-based learning (e.g. practicums, apprenticeships, etc.). The goals of the program are to implement effective strategies to enhance student learning and student supports, including at least:

Establishing best practices for providing vocational training,

Providing financial and benefits counseling,

Developing strategies for integrating assistive technology,

Maximizing access, with supports, to credentials and degrees,

Identifying methods to integrate students into the campus community,

Determining needs and developing marketing and evaluation strategies.”

Excerpt from system’s annual report on IDD programs

In 2023, just 22.5% of people with a disability were employed, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. People with IDD are four times more likely to be unemployed than individuals with other disabilities, the system said in a press release announcing the expansion of the pilot.

“There’s a group of individuals in our state that have been systematically left out of the workforce and that’s adults with IDD,” Nancye Gaj, system coordinator of the IDD Pilot Project, said in the release. “We have been charged to do something about this.”

Students who participated in the pilot at Catawba Valley and Brunswick enrolled in many programs, including: horticulture, manufacturing support, culinary/coffee shops, auto detailing, carpentry basics, furniture academy, custodial technician, manufacturing academy, early childhood education basics academy, and landscaping.

Fifty-five of the students who participated received job offers following their training, the system said last October, roughly 35% of pilot students.

A total of $908,194 was retained by the system to pay for staff positions required by the budget, in addition to professional development, evaluation, and marketing. This spring, the system hired a state director of IDD programs, associate director of IDD programs, and a part-time associate director of pathways and partnership.

The system held meetings with each college in March to launch program implementation. In April, system staff and representatives from each of the 15 pilot colleges attended an IDD training program kick-off event at Catawba Valley Community College.

System staff have scheduled campus visits with each of the 15 colleges to offer individualized guidance and technical assistance regarding program implementation before the fall semester and have formed an advisory council for the program. The system is also working with local colleges to develop marketing contracts to make sure students and their families are aware of the program.

“With the pillars of programmatic design and administrative functions being firmly set, the coming quarters are sure to expose individual and programmatic achievements that will lead to transformational generational change for students, institutions, and communities,” the annual report says.

Estep said getting local businesses on board will be key to the success of programs, and that the system is uniquely positioned to serve this population of students.

“I think this is a program that lies at the heart of our mission,” said Board Programs Committee Chair Sarah West. “Our role is to support the capacity of individuals to actualize their inherent gifts and to find a meaningful and productive path in life. …We had a good discussion yesterday about the potential to seek philanthropy and additional grants to  potentially scale this across our 58 colleges.”

On Friday, the Board also approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the NCCCS and NC Division of Vocation Rehabilitation Services of the Department of Health and Human Services to establish a vocational rehabilitation pilot program.

That program, which also received funding in the 2023 budget, is meant “to provide support services to community college students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to help the students reach their goals for employment and independence without duplicating the existing vocational support network.”

The MOU has up to $750,000 in funding. The Board is set to vote on which colleges will receive funds at its July meeting.

State Board of Community Colleges Chair Tom Looney at the Board’s April meeting. Hannah Vinueza McClellan/EducationNC

Accreditation, presidential reelection, and more

The Board heard updates on a number of reviews across the system.

The Board briefly discussed a five-year summary of college financial audit findings, noting that two colleges had findings in 2023: Forsyth Technical and Durham Technical community colleges.

Accountability and Audit Committee Chair Mark Merritt said he felt confident the colleges were addressing the findings. He also noted that neither case was a case of financial fraud.

You can read Forsyth Tech’s audit here, and Durham Tech’s audit here.

The committee also discussed the accreditation status of local community colleges, noting that seven colleges have a five-year review scheduled in 2024.

The committee discussed accreditation actions taken by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) Board of Trustees in December.

The SACSCOC placed Cape Fear Community College on warning at its December meeting, the Board noted. You can read the Dec. 5 warning notice from SACSCOC here.

Sondra Jarvis, Director of State Board Relations, said the college will send a response in September. The college will then undergo another review in December 2024. In the meantime, the college remains fully accredited.

“We are comfortable they are addressing everything as required by SACSCOS,” Jarvis told the Board.

On Friday, the Board approved an updated amendment regarding the reelection process of local presidents, which will give the Board final approval in the reelection of local presidents.

Now, a 60-day period of public comment will begin. After that point, the Board will consider any public comments before taking a final vote on the amendment.

To submit public comments, visit the system’s web page on numbered memos. 

You can view the updated amendment below.

State law has historically given the State Board of Community Colleges the authority to approve or deny the election of local college presidents by local boards of trustees. The 2023 budget, passed in September, adds reelection authority to the Board.

In January, the Board interpreted that added statute as requiring State Board approval for any contract renewals, extensions, or amendments for local presidential contracts.

In April, the Board discussed an updated amendment. At the time, some Board members expressed concern that the new amendment is overly burdensome on local boards or gives too much authority to the Board.

The amendment, approved on Friday, would require the chair of local boards to submit “a letter notifying the State Board of Community Colleges of its approval of a proposed presidential contract renewal or extension at least ninety (90) days prior to the expiration of the Existing Presidential Contract.” The amendment also lays out a process for colleges that do not have a contract for their presidents.

Among other things, that letter should include the current and new expiration date, affirmation that the local board has completed the president’s evaluation in compliance with Board code, and any “new contractual provision, or modification of any contractual provision” of the president’s existing contract. 

“The SBCC may request additional materials or information from the local board of trustees as it may reasonably deem necessary to consider the approval of the reelection of the college president,” the amendment says.

The May version of the amendment is very similar to the one considered in April, with a few minor changes. The end of the amendment includes two new clarifications:

  • The SBCC shall not approve the reelection of a college president unless it has received a request to approve such college president’s reelection from the applicable local board of trustees, in compliance with this Section.
  • In consideration of the approval of the reelection of a college president, it shall be the intent of the SBCC to ensure that such decision is properly supported by the materials submitted to the SBCC. It shall not be the intent of the SBCC to substitute its judgment for that of the local board of trustees in such local board of trustees’ reelection of its college president.

On Friday, the Board approved reelections of five local college presidents in one vote: Blue Ridge Community College President Dr. Laura Leatherwood, Guilford Technical Community College President Dr. Anthony Clarke, Mitchell Community College President Dr. Tim Brewer, Nash Community College President Dr. Lew Hunnicutt, and Robeson Community College President Melissa Singler.

The Board also approved an interim president at Pitt Community College, Ricky Brown, effective July 1.

Regional collaboration and strategic planning

In October 2023, the Board approved Dr. Zach Barricklow, formerly at Wilkes Community College, for the new position of associate vice president for strategy and rural innovation. The role, which Barricklow started in January, is based remotely in Wilkes and involves travel to rural communities across the state to engage more deeply with rural community colleges.

On Thursday, Barricklow updated the Board on the system’s regional collaboration and rural strategy efforts.

North Carolina has 47 rural community colleges, he said — the largest network of rural colleges in the United States. The system wants to better support collaboration that is already happening while helping support new partnerships, too.

Screenshot from NCCCS presentation on regional collaboration project.

The system’s regional collaboration is meant to result in specific recommendations to the Board in September, along with practitioner handbooks. The NCCCS-led project — named Rural Postsecondary Practices Partnership (RP³) — includes several partners: EdNC, the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research, and myFutureNC.

EdNC is participating with RP³ to share our lessons learned from our engagement and service journalism covering all 58 community colleges. EdNC retains its journalistic independence. Hannah Vinueza McClellan, our senior reporter, is not involved in the RP³ partnership.

“We believe maximum insight gathering is best accomplished in collaboration with aligned partners,” Barricklow said.

Starting this month, the RP³ group will organize and complete a “burst of research” at rural colleges across the state.

RP³ will examine partnerships based on “four categories of purpose:” meeting workforce needs, removing student barriers, augmenting college resources, and building internal capacity.

The group will present on its main findings and recommendations at the Board’s September planning retreat.

In October 2022, the Board approved its 2022-2026 strategic plan, “Leading Through Change.”

On Thursday, Board members received a tactics report looking at how the plan was implemented in 2023-24.

The strategic plan includes five primary goals:

  • Faculty and staff recruitment and retention,
  • Enrollment,
  • Student success,
  • Economic workforce and development, and
  • System funding and effectiveness.

After approving the strategic plan, the Board also approved 10 tactics to accomplish the goals, each with a number of subgoals. The report includes a look at accomplishments under each subgoal and the importance of the tactics.

“There were about 42 things we were working on, and we have made progress or accomplished all of them,” said Dr. Patrick Crane, system vice president of strategic initiatives. “We are doing this work right now.”

Student leadership, Finish Line grants, and more

NCCCS President Dr. Jeff Cox presented a resolution to honor Tony Pile, the Board’s student member and president of the North Carolina Comprehensive College Student Government Association (N4CSGA).

Friday was Pile’s last Board meeting as student liaison.

“Tony’s invaluable contribution to this Board, constantly, should emphasize to us all… the essential nature that student voices put when we’re making policy and decisions,” said Board Vice-Chair Dr. Grant Campbell. “Thank you, Tony.”

Cox started his presidential report by making remarks for Mental Health Month, in honor and memory of a close friend.

“If we can’t talk about it, we can’t address it,” Cox said, noting the mental health needs of community college employees and students.

Other meeting items included:

  • The Board’s transformative discussion focused on Teaching and Learning Hubs, established by the Belk Center, Achieving the Dream, and the NC Student Success Center. The four hubs (East, West, Central, and Piedmont) engage “all 58 of the state’s community colleges by complementing individual colleges’ teaching and learning efforts to support scalable, sustainable professional learning activities for full- and part-time faculty.” Launched in 2021, the program expects to serve more than 100,000 students by the end of the year. You can read EdNC’s February 2023 article on the hubs on our website.
  • The Board heard an update on its Education Resource Planning (ERP) modernization efforts. Five pilot colleges are set to start using the new ERP in spring 2025. These updates should improve data collection and sharing across the system.
  • The Board approved an allocation of $1.5 million to support the Finish Line Grants program, which will be allocated to colleges once the 2024 state budget is certified. The grant program gives colleges funds to disperse to students with an “unanticipated financial hardship” in awards up to $1,000 per semester.
  • The system’s BioNetwork was established in 2004 to help colleges as they support their local biotechnology and life science business and industry. On Friday, the Board approved roughly $4.5 million for BioNetwork host colleges for Fiscal Year 2024-25.

The Board does not have a full meeting in June but will meet briefly to approve required votes. The full Board will meet next in Raleigh on July 18-19.

Hannah Vinueza McClellan

Hannah McClellan is EducationNC’s senior reporter and covers education news and policy, and faith.