Building Success for Students With Differing Abilities at Elmhurst University Academy

The Elmhurst Learning and Success Academy at Elmhurst University offers students a fully supported college education to reach their full potential. Learn more.

Thinking about the future can be overwhelming for parents of students who wouldn’t necessarily succeed in a mainstream college or university. It’s especially challenging if you are wondering what a quality college environment looks like for students who learn differently. But colleges that are just right for your teen or young adult do exist — and there are key factors you should consider when making your selection, according to the team behind Elmhurst University’s innovative Elmhurst Learning and Success Academy (ELSA).

ELSA supports young adults to live independently as they navigate a fully-integrated part-time or full-time university experience. Through ELSA, students of differing abilities between the ages of 18-28 build independence and success in a variety of post-secondary certificate programs.

We asked the ELSA team at Elmhurst University to share expert tips for choosing the best college environment for a college-bound student. Use this information as your guide for exploring four-year post-secondary programs for your own student.

Building skills progressively

On-campus programs like ELSA are pertinent for any student aiming to be job ready after their university education, says Jane Cannata, ELSA Program Director.

She recommends parents narrow their online searches to focus on programs that offer personalized learning through access to general education coursework, internships to gain work experience in the community, and programs that help students build skills progressively.

Photo credit: Elmhurst Learning and Success Academy

At Elmhurst University, the ELSA program offers limited enrollment as students must have at least a third-grade ability in reading, writing, mathematics, and comprehension. Students also must demonstrate sufficient emotional skills and the capacity for independence. ELSA students must have earned a high school certificate of completion, a high school diploma, or both, in order to apply for the program.

Cannata suggests parents search for programs that offer the following key benefits, among others, to set their kids up for success.

Reaching full potential

Cannata suggests programs that offer the best of both worlds for students of differing abilities: specialized instruction and guidance plus learning, growing, and maturing alongside their mainstream peers.

“ELSA provides our students with the support they need to reach their full potential,” Cannata says.

She recommends college and university programs for special needs students that offer the most opportunities for enriching experiences. This might include participation in on-campus clubs and organizations, the option for on-campus housing and — as students become ready to join the workforce — job preparation with mock interviews.

“Students accepted and enrolled in the ELSA program are offered various forms of support essential to their academic and future successes, including housing, internships, and social skills. We’ve had students join the golf team, track team, join Greek life and more. Our students are not excluded,” she says.

Elmhurst University provides ELSA students an inclusive environment to learn, grow, and thrive as individuals alongside their degree-seeking peers as they build their skills for life-long learning opportunities. Guiding and supporting students in developing soft skills, such as learning how to take turns in a conversation, advocate for themselves, and asking for accommodations through email or in-person conversations, are all foundational to ELSA.

“Teamwork and collaboration are important skills for students in order to set them up for future success,” says Cannata. “And we help students layer those skills as they move through the program. So, when they get that internship, our students build the confidence to apply for jobs in the future.”

Time to grow — and a sustained connection at Elmhurst University

Through these experiences, students at ELSA are able to take the time they need to grow and Mary Jo Ramicone, Career Development Coordinator with ELSA, says she’s proud to see ELSA students shine.

“It’s amazing to see the difference that takes place between our students’ freshman to senior years. They’ve got that independence and the confidence they need because we have been working with them to build those skills for the past four years,” Ramicone says. “They seem to have a better idea of what they want to do and how to handle themselves in new and future situations.”

Photo credit: Elmhurst Learning and Success Academy

ELSA students also are offered ongoing support after program completion, Ramicone says. It’s a certificate program feature she deems essential for special needs college and university students. To highlight why she feels this way, Ramicone shares the story of a program graduate working in the fast food industry who reached out for support recently.

“He wants to work in childcare and had childcare experience through ELSA,” Ramicone says. “We looked around and found him an internship working with kids. He took the initiative and now has two jobs and wants to go back to get a higher degree! He learned that he had the ability and the confidence to go get it, and to continue with career exploration and go after what he wants.”

As proud of ELSA students and graduates as Cannata and Ramicone are, they’re equally passionate about the program itself.

“We looked at 305 programs across the United States. Some are more structured than others. Students at Elmhurst really have the time to develop the skills they need to become independent,” says Cannata. “It takes time to make sure that you have all of the pieces go in the right direction for the success of the students!” 

Learn more about the Elmhurst Learning and Success Academy at Elmhurst University. Find the ELSA online application here.


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