The Stamford Advocate's Erin Kayata wrote the following story for the April 14, 2018 edition of the daily newspaper the "Stamford Advocate"...
STAMFORD — Michael Schiro was confused by the envelope he received in the mail from Adelphi University one afternoon in January. “Congratulations,” it read in yellow letters across the front.
“Congratulations for what?” the 20-year-old wondered. Schiro discovered the answer when he went to his room and opened the envelope: He was accepted to the Long Island school’s four-year undergraduate program.
“I’m feeling excited,” he said at his family home last week shortly after pre-registering for classes. The acceptance was a long time coming. Going away to a four-year college was a goal of Schiro’s when he graduated Stamford High School in 2015. But he wasn’t ready for the challenges of college, as is sometimes the case with recent graduates. Schiro is on the autism spectrum, making some of the social and emotional components of going away to college even more difficult. Schiro also wasn’t prepared for college-level academics. For most of high school, he was in mainstream classes with a paraprofessional. However, his individualized education program allowed him to turn in modified work, which wasn’t at the same level as his peers. This showed when no college accepted him when he applied his senior year.
However, there was hope. With the help of Sue Chandler, assistant director for special education at the secondary level for Stamford Public Schools, Schiro enrolled in the College Steps program, which provides transitional support in a college setting for students with learning and social challenges.
“It was a blessing College Steps came in,” Michael’s mother, Mary Schiro, said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better time for it to happen.” According to Chandler, Michael Schiro is the first student from Stamford to complete the College Steps program, which opened in 2015 at Norwalk Community College. The program now serves about 15 to 18 students at NCC each semester and is also offered at schools in Virginia, Vermont, Massachusetts and New York.
With April being Autism Awareness Month, Chandler said the district’s partnership with College Steps has opened the door for a multi-tiered support to help students on the spectrum with the academic and social potential go to college. For students who are a good fit for the program, the district can work closely with College Steps to create an individualized plan to help them succeed. “College Steps is a pretty comprehensive support service,” Chandler said. “Truly our partnership has allowed us to support the funding for College Steps and their comprehensive provisions for students.” Through College Steps, Michael Schiro was provided a peer mentor when he enrolled in classes at NCC in the fall of 2015.
The peer mentor is a student hired by College Steps to go to class with Schiro, help him through the work and teach him how to get academic support. The peer mentor also works with Schiro after class and helps increase his peer interaction. “That’s something we do very often for students, especially on the autism spectrum,” said Tim Pearson, program coordinator for College Steps at NCC. “They could have an array of challenges, but one being social. Absorbing the information is not a problem, learning can be tailored, but how you can navigate campus life, that’s where a peer mentor steps in.”
Although he takes three classes a semester at NCC, Schiro is still considered a Stamford Public Schools student since he is entitled to services from the district until he turns 21. The district has held onto his diploma, and in return, he is considered dually enrolled at Stamford schools and NCC so he can continue to receive services. Chandler helped develop an individualized college plan with College Steps, which set academic, social, emotional, independence and self advocacy goals for Schiro.
While Schiro’s family pays for his NCC classes, the district covers the cost for College Steps. The district also offers continued support in the form of adult education classes. For example, Schiro still sees a behaviorist with Stamford schools to help him with his social skills.
“In order to move from high school to post-secondary with mastery and success, it’s our responsibility to continue to support that student,” Chandler said. “College Steps has identified support for students like Michael who would not be able to navigate college socially and academically. The fact he had this opportunity to practice and have model support from peers, as well as professionals on campus and in district, allowed the safety net for Michael to help him across that hurdle.”
During his three years at NCC, College Steps pulled back Schiro’s support systems to prepare him for life away at college. Mary Schiro said she has seen her son grow during the past three years.
When he started, he didn’t know how to approach professors to ask for accommodations or accept criticism. “It was a wake-up call that first semester,” Mary Schiro said. “He was very frustrated. But he had to accept the struggle. He’s matured with College Steps. He’s realized it’s OK to ask for help. He needed these three years to mature.” At Adelphi, Michael Schiro will be part of the Bridges program, which will help him adjust to college life.
Schiro plans to study computer science and credits he earned at NCC will allow him enough free time to schedule support services. In addition to his classes and adjusting to life with a roommate in a dorm, he also wants to play club baseball and join a film club on campus. “Any parent whose child is looking at college, College Steps taught Michael what it was like to do college-level work,” Mary Schiro said.
“I’m more secure he’ll succeed now than if he’d been accepted three years ago.”