A new program called Falcon Flight at the University of Montevallo is giving older students with special needs an opportunity to experience college while also learning new job skills.
In an effort to expand the current School-to-Work partnership between the school district and the university, five students are participating in a program specifically for Shelby County Schools students, ages 18 to 21 with intellectual disabilities, who have completed the requirements for a high school diploma. This transition program is available as part of the students’ services that are available to them until the age of 21.
Dr. Marla Aldrich, the special education coordinator for Shelby County Schools, has been working for over five years to make this program a reality. Aldrich said the Falcon Flight program is designed to assist students in developing skills through direct instruction and job-training in an environment with their typical peers.
Aldrich said leaders at the University of Montevallo were very receptive to the idea of starting the program and have worked in collaboration with district leaders to ensure a successful implementation. The program is housed at the University of Montevallo, but the instructor for the program, Shari Deason, and the job coach are provided by the school district. Alabama Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and Shelby ARC will also be involved to schedule specific training opportunities.
“I am absolutely thrilled about Falcon Flight,” said Dr. Hollie Cost, who serves as a special education professor at UM and as mayor of the city of Montevallo. “This program brings such depth and breadth to our university community. The University of Montevallo has welcomed our new Falcon Flight students with open arms.”
Cost said she has already had several UM faculty from education, counseling, and speech and language pathology to offer their help and support. She said she is very excited about the opportunities the program will give to the students, who not only get to experience the academic and daily life of a college student but will also be able to learn what it is like to live in a dorm and transition to different settings across campus.
“It is our hope that the Falcon Flight students will embrace a vast array of opportunities the campus has to offer,” Cost said. “I for one am honored to work with such bright and ambitious students from Shelby County Schools. Within the Falcon Flight program, we are proud to welcome a budding artist, a vibrant conversationalist, and an incredibly hospitable young man among others.”
Andrew Murdoch, a 2017 graduate of Oak Mountain High School, is one of the five young adults currently enrolled in the program. His mother, Alice Murdoch, is not only a parent with special needs children, both also a special education teacher for Birmingham City Schools.
“Falcon Flight is truly a blessing for Andrew,” Murdoch said. “He has talked about going to college and with the help and collaboration with Shelby County Schools and the University of Montevallo it has happened. The teacher, Shari Deason, is very passionate about this program. I believe it will help him be more prepared socially and for the workforce.”
Carla Layton, program specialist with Shelby County Schools Special Education Department, said the students were nervous and apprehensive about their first day of college, just as their typical college peers were on their first day. However, their first-day jitters were quickly replaced by comments about how much they love college.
“A typical day includes riding a bus to the University of Montevallo and then attending class in a college classroom in Wills Hall to learn about transition skills, social skills, work ethics, self-determination skills, and career exploration,” Layton said. “While eating lunch in the Anna Irvin Dining Hall or Moe’s Southwest Grill, the students are able to eat with friends.”
“On the first day at college, Andrew texted Ryan, a friend who graduated from OMHS, and asked if he wanted to eat lunch with him,” Layton shared. “Peyton, who never meets a stranger, was eating lunch at a table with girls that he met as he walked into the cafe. Emily met a friend from high school and discussed her art class and Preston and Prince each found new friends to chat with.”