This story was originally published by PublicSource, a news partner of NEXTpittsburgh. PublicSource is a nonprofit media organization delivering local journalism at publicsource.org. You can sign up for their newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters.

When Nick Sciullo turned 18, he told his mother, Regina, that he wasn’t going back to his high school. Nick, who has Down syndrome, could remain in high school until he turned 21, like some other students with disabilities.

But his friends had graduated, and he wanted to go to college.

At first, Regina wasn’t sure how she could help her son have a college experience. Then, she thought of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, where other high schoolers in Nick’s district took classes. She called, and she was put in touch with Father Phillip Kanfush, a professor.

She proposed that Nick visit campus in the mornings for tutoring in reading and math. Regina, though, wondered if more could be done in the future. “I said, ‘Now after this year, what are we going to do?’”

A year later, in 2015, Kanfush launched Bearcat B.E.S.T., a transition program for high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The program aims to provide an inclusive college experience with a focus on academics and social, vocational and independent living skills. Nick was one of the first to attend the program.

“Nick wanted to go to college,” Regina said. “He wanted to go be part of the sports. He wanted to go in the cafeteria and eat lunch — anything that a typical college student would do.”

The number of inclusive post-secondary education programs has continued to grow in Pennsylvania since 2015, rising to an estimated 19.

Still, they are complicated programs and some in Western Pennsylvania have faced instability in recent years. Mercyhurst University in Erie closed its 13-year-old program in 2020. And Slippery Rock University is restructuring its program and phasing out the current curriculum to become more financially sustainable, according to university leadership.

Bearcat B.E.S.T., though, is continuing to serve students, and the region gained one program at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which brought in its first cohort of students in 2019.

Personal growth and programmatic changes

Stephanie Messer has seen her daughter, Annie, grow by “leaps and bounds” since enrolling in Slippery Rock’s Rock Life program about two years ago. Despite attending virtually her first year, Annie has joined clubs, managed her schedule and learned to take notes for class — something she was never asked to do in high school. Though she doesn’t take courses for credit, she’s taken finals just to have the experience.

The family lives in McCandless Township, and this spring was Annie’s first in-person semester at Slippery Rock. Stephanie has continued to see her daughter become more independent.

“She’s getting the opportunity to mature in ways that typical young adults do her age, in an environment with other adults, making mistakes, sleeping through classes, you know, things like that,” she said.

PublicSource

Ben Guthrie sits in Duquesne’s Mary Pappert School of Music. Photo by Lindsay Dill/ PublicSource.

In November, Slippery Rock announced that the current Rock Life curriculum would be phased out in spring 2023, and admissions would be suspended for a year while external consultants evaluate the program. The news sparked concerns over the program’s future, and an online petition to save the program garnered almost 13,000 signatures, according to TribLIVE.

“The Rock Life program can’t survive solely on grants and donations. We need to determine a structure that allows us to fund the program with a combination of tuition, fees, grants, and federal and state funding,” President William Behre said in the announcement.

In an interview with PublicSource, Behre said the university will ensure that current students are able to complete the existing program, and he’s committed to seeing a new one ushered in. What he said he can’t guarantee, though, is that the program will exist in 10 years or under future administrations. Behre plans to retire in June 2023.

“It’s not in any imminent risk,” Behre said. “Future administrations can look at it like they would look at anything else, and say, ‘Do we want to continue doing this?’”

As part of the review, the consultants will make suggestions regarding Rock Life’s financial model. Behre also expects they’ll recommend that Rock Life grow from a two-year program to four and add coursework surrounding self-advocacy and determination.

“We’re teaching out Rock Life as it exists today and then replacing it with Rock Life as it will exist tomorrow,” he said.