Walter and Marie Williams’ STEPP Program

Posted by in Accommodations & Assistive Technology

When students are diagnosed with a learning disability they often have a limited amount of accommodations and support offered to them in school. From the time they are diagnosed to the day they graduate high school, the typical support they receive is governed by a 504 plan or IEP. This requires a meeting with teachers and parents each year to discuss with the student what is needed for him/her to be successful throughout the year. After the meeting, school professionals are required to assist students with the determined accommodations and support. While that sounds great on paper, the reality is when students sit in those meetings with all their teachers staring at them with looks of pity and concern, students often feel uncomfortable.  This makes it difficult to openly talk about “what they need” from their teachers or even discuss the options that are available to them. So students may go with what they know or what is commonly offered to everyone else, extended time and low distraction space to take their tests. In public schools, if students know of any other accommodations that can be available, it’s likely too often because of more research done on the part of the students or their parents.

Students can go throughout their whole school careers having only the minimum accommodations available, which they may barely use because of embarrassment, believing their peers won’t understand what it’s like having a LD. Often students can get by in high school with little to no accommodation, but unfortunately, once those students get to college they can’t handle the increased difficulty in workload and can no longer just slide by without accommodations. From what I have seen, after being on a college campus for three years, there are three options students with LDs have. The first and least recommended option is simply to do nothing. Too many times I’ve seen students who have a LD but won’t get registered under their university’s disability support services. Sometimes those students feel that since they have been able to survive their school careers without accommodations they won’t need them in college. Others are embarrassed to access support or feel like they want to try to make it through college “on their own”.  And while some students still might be able to make it through college without help, there’s a chance they won’t reach their full potential. The second option is to register with the school’s disability support service and have similar, if not better, accommodations then they had in high school. While that’s a fantastic option since many campuses have great disability support services, including all public North Carolina university campuses, there is a third option.  Students have the opportunity to apply to programs that are specifically created for helping students with LDs become successful in college.

These types of programs can help high school senior’s transition smoothly into a college atmosphere. Some support programs offer tutors, mentors, advisors, and assistive technology that helps students with LDs stay on top of their college education and not get lost in the shuffle of a large university. One of the leading programs, located at East Carolina University, which has inspired the founding of other similar programs, is the STEPP Program. This one of a kind support program for LD students offers some of the best support any LD student could imagine. Once admitted into the program, students with LDs often express how they are overwhelmed with the support and encouragement the STEPP Program provides.

The STEPP Program was founded in the fall of 2006 by a team of people in the ECU College of Education. It was led by Dr. Sarah Williams and had two pilot students its first year. The inspiration for the program came from Dr. Williams’ experiences working with students who have learning disabilities in the public schools. Dr. Williams felt there was a need for programs for students with learning disabilities that offered comprehensive level services to help bright and talented students transition to college as well as enable them to successfully earn a college degree in the major of their choice. Thus, the Walter and Marie Williams’s STEPP Program began. It was originally named Project STEPP but was changed after major contributions by Walter and Maria Williams (no relation to Dr. Sarah Williams).

It was, and still is, important to Dr. Williams that the program remain free to the students it accepts each year and holds special authority to waive aspects of their students’ applications to East Carolina University, such as accepting a slightly lower SAT score that would have otherwise prevented admittance to the university. That means that most students accepted into the program are only ECU students through the STEPP Program, and they stay in the program all the way through their undergraduate college careers.

There is an application process, which beings during the applicant’s junior year of high school, to be considered for the STEPP Program, including an essay about their experiences with a LD. Students who make it through the 2nd round of review are invited for an interview. During this process, students and their parents will meet face-to-face with at least two faculty members of the STEPP Program. Half of each interview is with the student and his/her parents and the other half is just with the student. Then after many hours of review, discussion with an advisory board, and decision-making, 10 students are selected out of an average of 55 applications each year to be the next STEPP Program cohort.

The STEPP Program has a year-long transition curriculum for the high school seniors who have been selected as the upcoming freshman cohort. Participants are sent newsletters and given small activities to start preparing them for college life. The next step within the transition period is something called Boot Camp. This takes place the week before the rest of ECU freshmen are supposed to arrive on campus. The new cohort will come early and start their college careers with a week of acquiring important information and leaning about tools that will help them be successful. While the name Boot Camp might sound intimidating, many people from older cohorts in the STEPP Program express how much that week eased their anxieties over starting college and helped them learn how to be open about having LDs with their professors. This unique time also gives all the members of the new cohort a chance to bond.

In the beginning of Boot Camp, the freshmen are joined by their family members as they set up their new dorm rooms and attend information sessions about a variety of topics, such as, “How to Use Different Assistive Technologies” and “Safety Tips for On and Off Campus.” About half way through the week, the students say goodbye to their parents and start getting ready to start their classes by meeting with their mentors and taking a campus tour to find their classes. Once the week is over and all the other students arrive on campus, the new STEPP cohort is already well-informed about all their classes and how campus life works. So by the first day of classes, the STEPP students are prepared with ample support and encouragement.

After the transition curriculum is complete, the program hostes several classes that provide students with studying and test-taking strategies. The program offers a private area in the Joyner Library called The Cove for study hours and has mentors, tutors, and a closet full of assistive technologies and office supplies at their students’ disposal. This is also where the offices for the STEPP Program faculty are located, whose jobs are centered on the success of the program’s students. The freshman cohort is required to attend 15 hours of study hall for their first two semesters in The Cove. The amount of study hours decreases to 10 the fall semester of their sophomore year, and then after that they are no longer required to have study hours.  They are, however, still encouraged to use The Cove and all the resources the program has to offer. Students are also encouraged to have a lighter workload their first semester and will only take on 12 credit hours (4 classes). The new cohort of students are usually put into the same classes and generally have English composition together with an imbedded tutor. This imbedded English tutor attends class with the freshmen and holds an additional hour-long English workshop each week with the freshman cohort to advise them on all their papers for the class. The English tutor, along with all the other STEPP tutors, also holds tutor hours in The Cove to work one-on-one with STEPP students. While students might originally think they are not taking enough credits or the amount of support is too excessive, they eventually see all the benefits they get from being in the STEPP Program because of the sudden and extensive life changes the first year of college creates.

Many students in the STEPP Program have benefited in many ways.  When asked what the program has done for them, students will say it has helped them perform better in school than they otherwise would have without the extra support. Also many students believe that the program gave them an advantage their freshman year because they had help figuring out where their classes would be, how things worked around the campus, and had their scheduling already planned out for them their first semester. All they had to do was show up. Not only is STEPP a place where students can get ahead with school work and university life, it is also a place where students feel secure enough to ask for help and to be open about their learning difference.  There are 10 students in each cohort, each with a LD, and are surround by others who have had similar experiences in their school careers. This makes it easy for student to relate to one another and build strong friendships. The STEPP Program has made a difference in many students’ lives, some of whom would not have been able to get into a university like ECU on their own, and the program has given them the support they needed to become successful academically.

The STEPP Program intends to stay about the same size, with a maximum of 10 students with each cohort. The program is designed to have small cohorts each year so every student will be able to have the amount of support they need to make the transition from high school to college smooth and make sure college does not become too overwhelming. However, the program has expanded in other ways. Another initiative Dr. Williams has since organized is called College STAR. Its goal is to enable ECU to work with other universities to learn how to make college settings a welcoming places for students with learning disabilities. College STAR has already successfully helped begin student support programs at Appalachian State University (As-U-R). This program is similar to the STEPP Program but has different criteria unique to its own program’s needs and goals. Fayetteville State University is also participating in the College STAR organization and is currently planning a support program for students who have learning differences on their campus (Bronco STAR). The University of North Carolina at Greensboro has developed a cutting-edge support program for students with AD/HD on their campus as well. College STAR’s main goal is to develop a network of individuals and support programs in a variety of colleges. Ideally there will eventually be enough campuses sensitive to the diverse ways students approach learning that students with LDs will have choices to explore as they find the best fit for their college experiences.  Being in a program like STEPP might not be the right fit for everyone, but those who have gone through the program rave about the amount of support it gave them so that they not only survived college, but thrived in it.