At Beacon College in Leesburg, students navigate learning differences and disabilities to earn a college degree and prepare for a career.
In high school, Jade Ridley was bullied for having a learning disability, for exhibiting signs of depression and anxiety, and for being different.
“Growing up, a lot of people didn’t understand me,” she says. “I got called a lot of names. People told me I wasn’t going to make it in life, that I was stupid. I was even told to kill myself. It was hard because I didn’t have kids in high school who had the same issues as me.”
The more that people predicted she’d flunk out of high school, the more Ridley worked to make sure she didn’t. When many of those same people, including some of her teachers, said she’d never get into a college, she worked to prove them wrong. She researched her options and enrolled in Beacon College, a small liberal arts school in Leesburg that specializes in educating students with learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and other learning differences.
Now 24, Ridley graduated from Beacon last year. She lives in Orlando, where she works as a freelance graphic designer. She credits Beacon with enabling her to start a career.
“My learning disability is I tend to not understand things like everyone else does,” she says. “I’m a hands-on learner. I need to see what I have to do, hear what I have to do and then I need to actually do it. One of my favorite professors, Brittany Strozzo, she was able to sit down with me and explain and describe things. She showed me the ropes. Now, when I create a logo for a client, I know what to do, because Ms. Strozzo gave me the tools.”
Founded in 1989 by a group of parents who wanted their children with learning and attention issues to experience higher education, Beacon College opened with 32 students and a campus consisting of two repurposed buildings along Leesburg’s Main Street. Beacon initially offered one degree, a bachelor of arts in human services.
In 2013, when George J. Hagerty became the college’s president, Beacon had 187 students, but Hagerty, who has a background in both college administration and special education, saw that the school had room to grow.
“This is a population that has been underserved,” Hagerty says. “After I became a finalist for the job, they asked me if I could get enrollment up to 250. I told them that the perfect number for this population and profile of student would be 450 to 500. I thought it would take 10 years to get there, but we did it in eight.”
As the school has grown, it has focused on a support-services heavy model to help the students adjust to college life, both academically and socially, keep them engaged and moving forward in their studies, and to prepare them for careers after graduation.
Beacon’s six-year graduation rate of 63% exceeds the graduation rate of students attending four-year colleges in the United States, which is about 62% of students graduating within six years. Also, the rate of Beacon’s graduates getting a job or enrolling in grad school within six months after graduation is nearly 90%. Of 2021’s grads, 73% got a job and 16% attended graduate school.
“Our numbers are damn good even compared against traditional populations,” Hagerty says. “We’re a competitive, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges-accredited liberal arts college that happens to be devoted in its teaching style to the learning-disabled population.”
He adds that for the students to be successful they must learn the same material that a student would at any accredited college.
“This is not a watered-down curriculum,” Hagerty says. “It’s a traditional, undergraduate curriculum. When (the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges) came here for its 10-year review, it had no findings or recommendations. That’s pretty rare. And they had nine people here. I think a lot of the panel visited because they wanted to see if this works. I still have friends who call me, college presidents, and ask me, ‘Hagerty, are those numbers real?’ The answer is yes.”
When freshmen or transfer students arrive, they’re not on their own.
Each student is assigned a learning specialist, who works to smooth the transition into college and build college-appropriate academic behavior and skills. Students are encouraged, for example, to get involved in clubs and social activities and receive help in mastering the study habits and organizational skills they’ll need to get to class on time every day and succeed academically.
Particularly during a student’s first year, one major goal of the learning specialists is building self-confidence, Hagerty says, since so many of them arrive lacking confidence after struggling academically for many years. Also, he says, many of the students were “bullied and marginalized” during high school and need a boost.
“We meet with the freshmen once a week,” says Melissa Mayor, a Beacon freshman learning specialist and academic advisor. “They get about an hour and then we taper it off as they move up, but there is a learning specialist for every student through their senior year. Our job is to help them be independent and understand themselves, understand their needs. Whatever assistance they need, we encourage them to self-advocate.”
Arizona-native Charles Dion says the extra guidance turned around his outlook on education. A junior majoring in anthrozoology — he hopes someday to be a college professor — Dion is on the autism spectrum and has ADHD. He also has amplified musculoskeletal pain syndrome, a condition that results in him feeling pain more acutely than most people.
“I have always been one who had the potential to do well in academics, but I really needed additional support,” he says. “Many times, my high school teachers were a bit old-fashioned and didn’t acknowledge the existence of learning disabilities, so I struggled. I was picked on relentlessly. I was bullied, even by teachers. I would make excuses not to go to school. But when I got to Beacon, I got accommodations for all of these things. It only took really good professors like the ones here to make me realize how important education can be. I realized that I didn’t hate academics. I just hated the way I was being taught.”
For Beacon students needing extra academic attention, the college schedules daily “open learning” study sessions staffed by learning specialists or peer tutors. Mayor calls them “study halls on steroids.” She says professors see students during office hours more often than professors at a typical school might. In addition, students also can get help from learning specialists, peer tutors, writing consultants and teaching assistants.
Apart from being available, the professors tailor their teaching to the needs of each student. So, notes are provided ahead of class to students who might struggle taking notes while listening to a lecture.
“In my younger years, I thought I was the coolest professor ever,” Hagerty says. “I taught in the Socratic method. But you know what? The Socratic method works for auditory learners. It doesn’t work for visual or experiential learners. Here, we’re willing to take these students where they are because we know that part of the learning issues that they had previously was they were never taught correctly for them and never got the kind of support they need. You could be a visual learner. You could be an experiential learner. You could be an auditory learner. Our kids, we know when they get here that they can master college-level, undergraduate content. They just need the confidence and the tool kit to learn the way they learn.”
Something else the students need: Patience from their teachers.
“Being able to be calm and assertive in any kind of situation and to be patient with students who need a little extra time to go through technical skills or practice content or practice verbalization is a key factor,” says Brittany Strozzo, an assistant professor and assistant chair of Beacon’s web and digital media department. “I feel like I’ve grown here as an individual, being more patient and understanding. It’s just being able to connect with people on a different level.”
English senior instructor Christopher Irving said he was apprehensive about starting work at Beacon in 2016. His previous experience was teaching English and reading remediation at Palm Beach State College and serving as an adjunct teacher at Florida Atlantic University.
“I wasn’t certain that I was going to be able to deal with such a spectrum of challenges, difficulties, differences,” Irving says. “I wasn’t sure I was going to maintain momentum in the classroom. But the biggest surprise is I found that the students create momentum, because the students are so idiosyncratic. They help push the material and push the class. At traditional schools, the ones I worked at in the past, sometimes it was more difficult to gauge the students processing than it is here. Here, if they want to say something, they’ll go ahead and say it. If they want to contribute, they’ll go ahead and contribute. I thought it was going to be an increased level of disruption, but it’s not. They actually propel the boat. These are the type of students who are answering questions that they haven’t even been asked yet, which is my favorite way to think about their thought processes.”
Melissa Bradley, an educator and career advisor for 29 years, says it can be a “hard world out there” for learning disabled and autistic job seekers. As director of Beacon’s center for career preparation, her job includes preparing students for the workplace. The work exceeds the usual, senior-year resume-preparation help and job-interview coaching.
“All students at Beacon engage in four years of career development programming through coursework,” Bradley says. “That’s different than many colleges. We know our students learn differently. That high-touch approach across campus has to be at the career center, as well. We look at what tomorrow looks like after Beacon.”
Each Beacon student is required to complete at least 80 hours of experiential learning related to the student’s major/minor or career pathway goals with a company or organization before they can graduate. This includes approved internships, job shadowing or apprenticeships secured prior to graduation.
For students majoring in anthrozoology — which explores interactions between people and animals and is Beacon’s most popular major — that has led to work at zoos, animal sanctuaries, animal parks and animal shelters. For Justin Cenci, a 21-year-old junior studying graphic design and business management, it has meant an internship at Pilots N Paws, an animal rescue non-profit, where he creates social media and online marketing content.
Originally from New Jersey, Cenci’s goal is to someday work as a graphic designer for Disney, Google or another big corporation. Diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, he struggled socially and academically during high school, but now he’s mastering college courses and says he “can comfortably speak to others now, be more mature and make eye contact.” Looking toward a career in graphic design, he’s also mastering Adobe Creative Suites, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator and other software. He says his college experience has “literally changed” him.
“Overthinking is still an issue for me,” Cenci says. “But even when I overthink, I still do what I need to do. I don’t let the autism stop me.”
The career center partners with employers, big and small, to facilitate internships and future jobs. Corporate examples include Citi, Johnson & Johnson and EY. The career center also works with companies such as CAI and Zavicon that recruit neurodiverse candidates for technology jobs.
“We embrace and connect with as many companies and organizations as possible that are not just looking at checking a box for the sake of a board of directors or for shareholders, but companies that really embrace the diversity, equity and inclusion initiative — and recognize that there is talent in everyone,” Bradley says.
Alexander Morris-Wood, Beacon’s vice president of program development and global partnerships, says Beacon graduates automatically bring neurodiversity to a company’s workforce. And, given the challenges they’ve had to overcome to graduate from high school and college, they also tend to bring something else that employers like — resiliency.
“This is a group of students that pretty much can take on anything that you can throw at them,” Morris-Wood says.
Ridley, the graphic designer, uses her learning disability as motivation.
“When someone told me I couldn’t do something, it made me want to try three times harder,” she says. “I was told that I wouldn’t graduate from college. I was told that I wouldn’t make it through high school. I was told I wouldn’t be able to drive, and I have done all of those things. So, despite people constantly beating me down, it has brought me up in a way, too. I honestly don’t think I’d change anything that has happened in my past because it has made me who I am today. And I am extremely happy with who I am.”
- Founded: 1989
- Students: 510 (Fall 2023)
- Campus: Located in Leesburg, the 26-acre campus has 35 buildings.
- Sticker Price: Tuition and housing cost about $58,000 per year. Merit and need-based grants are available to students for up to $40,000 per year.
- Six-year Graduation Rate: 63%
- Typical Class Size: 12-20 students
- Overall Student Retention Rate: 92%
- Course Completion Rate: 96%
GEORGE J. HAGERTY, 70
President, Beacon College (since 2013)
RESUME: President, Franklin Pierce University (1995-2009); president, University Advisors International (2012- 2013); provost and professor, Hellenic American University (2009-2011)
EDUCATION: Harvard University (Ed.D), Harvard Graduate School of Education (Ed.M), Stonehill College of Massachusetts (BA)
NOTABLE: Legally blind due to a retinal disease diagnosed when he was a freshman in college, Hagerty retains some peripheral vision in his right eye.
When Beacon College President George Hagerty walks on campus, he’s happy to stop and visit with students.
One of the icebreaker questions he asks most often is: “What’s your workaround?”
The question gets to what the students do every day to overcome the obstacles brought on by their learning disabilities, ADHD or autism.
Hagerty is genuinely curious, and he’s anxious to share his own workarounds, as well. Being legally blind, he has plenty of them to talk about.
When eating at a restaurant, he asks someone at the table to describe where each type of food is located on his plate. When he meets a visitor in his office, he lets them speak first, so he knows where they are in the room. And he puts his hand out first to shake, so he doesn’t end up grabbing at a hand he can’t see.
Without sight, Hagerty has learned to listen a little more closely.
“I can’t read your face,” he says. “So, what do I read? I read your voice.”
Common workarounds for Beacon students include simply staying on task, staying busy, being organized and eliminating distractions. Some students also use assistive technology to help with reading and writing.
“They just need to stay on track, stay focused and keep moving ahead,” Hagerty says. “We know they can succeed.”
Beacon College, in the midst of a $12-million capital campaign, announced plans to build an $8.5-million, 28,000-sq.-ft. intramural and fitness Center, which would include two basketball courts, a fitness center and a running track, as well as space for social gatherings and club meetings.
This fall, the college became a member of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association and will field teams in a variety of sports, including men’s and women’s basketball, track, golf and tennis.
Last year, Beacon hired former NBA player Sam Vincent to help build the men’s basketball program. Vincent, 60, is a former first-round pick of the Boston Celtics who played point guard during his seven-year NBA career, including three seasons with the Orlando Magic.
Beacon President George J. Hagerty sees athletics, both intramural and conference-level play, as important components of the college experience. Hagerty, when he was president of Franklin Pierce University, served as chairman of the Presidents Council of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA-Division II) in 2004.
“Only in America,” he says, “can an uncoordinated blind guy become the chair of the NCAA.”
Many public and private colleges in Florida and across the county have programs for learning disabled students. In fact, up to 15% of students attending college and universities in the United States are categorized as learning disabled. But only two colleges in the U.S. enroll those students exclusively — Beacon College in Leesburg and Landmark College in Vermont. Like Beacon, Landmark serves students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, ADHD, autism and other issues. Beacon’s enrollment is 510 and Landmark’s is 569.
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