A select group of ECU educators is especially proud
knowing they’re opening the higher education door to students
whose learning differences sometimes keep them from going to college.
By Spaine Stephens
s another academic year begins, unique academic triumphs are springing from promises kept between student and institution through Project STEPP, which offers comprehensive support for students with learning differences. These students, identified more than a year before they enter East Carolina, are capable of excelling in a university setting, yet their documented learning disabilities affect their achievement.
“These students are very bright,” says Sarah Williams, director of Project STEPP, which stands for Supporting Transition and Education through Planning and Partnerships. “They have intellectual capabilities equal to or greater than their peers in school.”
For years, professional educators like Williams, a former special education teacher who earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in special education from ECU, saw an academic gap on the university level in services for students with learning differences. Project STEPP began in 2007 to mend those gaps. The program accepts 10 new students per year who receive academic, social and life-skills support as they transition to college life and toward graduation. Students accepted to the program receive a commitment to support them every step of the way. The students, in turn, promise to take advantage of opportunities and services all over campus as they work toward their goals.
ECU’s Project STEPP model is unique to North Carolina, and is catching the eye of the UNC General Administration. That’s because it provides intensive support that goes well beyond services legally required at state universities.
A new home
There have been eight colleges within East Carolina University, but this fall a ninth opens with the first class of students admitted to the new Honors College. The unit is a beefed-up version of an existing program provided for the highest-achieving students. By upgrading the honors program to college status at a time of thin budgets, the university is signaling its intent to attract even more of the brainiest bunch of kids. About 120 of them are expected to fill the first class.
Simple numbers explain the move. Last year, of the 18,776 freshmen who applied here, East Carolina identified 859 whiz kids who were immediately accepted. However, only 189 of them chose ECU over other schools to which they had applied (22 percent), and of those, only 115 (13 percent) actually enrolled in the honors program.
There’s another telling number. ECU saw 179 freshmen who had overall GPAs of 3.0 or above transfer last year to schools offering bigger scholarships and more challenging classes. Their loss hurt the university’s critical freshman-to-sophomore retention rate, dropping it one point below the goal of 79 percent.
The program’s transition to college status has been led by Associate Dean Kevin Baxter, who arrived in January after 10 years with the College Park Scholars program at the University of Maryland. As part of the transition, EC Scholars, the university’s most prestigious scholarship program, moved into the Honors College last spring under the direction of Katie O’Connor. Dr. Patricia Fazzone, director of the University Honors Program at Southern Illinois University who holds a doctorate in nursing, was named dean.
The Honors College will have between 12 and 15 faculty members leading classes, up from five last year, and will be housed in the Mamie Jenkins Building, which is being remodeled for that purpose.
This fall most Honors College students will occupy Jones Hall on College Hill, where they will be housed together with international students.
Provost Marilyn Sheerer, who has championed creation of an Honors College, said ECU must balance its historic mission of providing broad access to higher education against the need to challenge a narrow group of students who have the potential for greatness. “The new Honors College will directly meet that challenge by creating an intellectually stimulating, creative and engaging curriculum for this group of students. We have discovered that we have lost some of these students in the past because of their own experience of not being academically challenged.”
The university is awarding Honors College students scholarships of $1,500 and $2,500 for freshman year over and above other scholarships and grants they may receive. —Steve Tuttle
“Project STEPP is unique because of the necessity for collaboration all across campus,” Williams says. “This fits within the university’s culture so well because of that support. Folks all across campus have said, ‘How can we do this the best we can and how can we do right by these students?’”
The second tier of the Project STEPP experience is the continuing support during a student’s middle years. They are encouraged to take advantage of academic tutors and mentors who can give advice on how to deal with issues they face and how to grow more independent in areas including studying, time management, test- and note-taking and accountability. Project STEPP students are held to every university requirement that every other ECU student must adhere to; they simply have access to tools that help them conquer academic hurdles.
The graduation transition tier of the program links students with faculty members in their major to develop an electronic portfolio, which serves as a showcase of the student’s work and documents progress toward meeting area competencies. The process was piloted last spring semester, and Project STEPP is also working on linking students with internships and leadership opportunities.
“These students want to give back,” Williams says. “The older students are connecting back with younger students.”
The give-and-take approach to Project STEPP adds to the close dynamic between the students, program officials and faculty and staff across campus. The students are encouraged by the support; first-year Project STEPP students boast academic averages on target with those of other first-year students.
The success also is giving leverage to Project STEPP’s endowment fund and the pursuit of grant funding for the program’s future. The endowment started in 2007 through a gift from Walter and Marie Williams. The long-term goal is $4 million; to date, the endowment has grown to slightly more than $1 million. The endowment is a top funding priority for the university, says Marcy Romary, senior major gifts officer. The endowment would enable Project STEPP to be self-sufficient for the long haul if university funding and grants weren’t available, she says. Other gifts support operating funds that help sustain Project STEPP in the meantime. With 40 students enrolled in the program this fall, Project STEPP will eventually serve up to 50 students at a time, and the endowment will help the program and the university stick to the financial commitment of offering comprehensive support to each one.
Late last year, Project STEPP was awarded a two-year, $300,000 grant from the Oak Foundation that will help the program build partnerships and gain new ideas for serving students. The UNC system is working with Sarah Williams and other officials to expand on the ECU model and create similar opportunities at other UNC campuses.
“We’ve been given the opportunity to dream,” Williams says.
Currently, no other North Carolina university offers students with learning differences the comprehensive support that Project STEPP delivers. In fact, there are very few similar programs in the country, says Provost Marilyn Sheerer.
ECU has taken on a leadership role in seeking grant funding for program models at other universities that could eventually give more underserved students access to higher education. Without Project STEPP, ECU, the region and the state “would have missed out on the uniqueness of these students’ contributions,” Sheerer says. “When given the opportunities and support, they can achieve.”
Some Project STEPP students already are accomplishing more than they believed they could before they became college students.
“By the end of their first year,” Johnson says, “many of them reflect that they’ve made it farther than they ever expected. It’s exciting to see them realize that they can continue to build on those successes to reach their goals.”
The efforts of Project STEPP staff, mentors and tutors also are instilling confidence in the students. Some students refer to the Project STEPP office as a “home base” where they can study, ask questions, get advice and be referred to other offices on campus that can assist in their growth.
“I feel so great that I was able to come to a four-year university through Project STEPP,” says one student. “It opened up a lot of new doors for me and gave me the confidence to walk through them.”
To David Powers, that confidence is a product of ECU’s commitment to “deliver on the promise of opportunity.” Powers, special assistant to the provost, professor emeritus and member of Project STEPP’s advisory board, says research shows that if students who need this type of comprehensive academic and life-skills support are identified early on and provided close support, they tend to be as academically successful as any other college student. That success, he adds, can make a dramatic difference in the students’ later accomplishments; it’s often a lifelong difference.
“What it comes down to is East Carolina University being about opportunity in every way,” says Powers, who has focused on special education during his 33 years at ECU. “It’s one example of the way this university is actually living its mission.”
Sarah Williams sees it the same way. Project STEPP currently has a 95 percent retention rate, and its first student is set to graduate next May. Williams will be there, cheering and reflecting on her early hopes for such achievement by every student and by the program itself. “ECU is absolutely the best place to start this program,” she says. “We really are reaching the underserved. To come back home to ECU and see a program like this created here and to be a part of it, it couldn’t get any better.