The downtown Leesburg college celebrates 30 years of offering degrees to students with learning disabilities.
Some 3,800 miles from her Alaska home, Serena Partlow found Beacon College in downtown Leesburg to be a place where she and other students with learning differences could thrive in an environment catered to their needs.
“There is a place for you,” says Serena, a 2019 Beacon graduate, speaking at the college’s recent 30th anniversary gala. “I chose (those words) because they are what I wished I had known two and a half years ago, crying on a plane, leaving everything I had known.”
Serena was welcomed with open arms at Beacon, the nation’s first accredited institution offering four-year degrees to students with diagnosed learning disabilities and attention issues. Beacon provides personalized academic instruction and support services to best reach each student’s learning style and goals. This has been the college’s hallmark for the past 30 years, and it’s poised to be the school’s mission for decades to come.
“I still feel like the luckiest person on the planet,” Serena told her audience, adding that everything “fell in place” during her collegiate years at Beacon. She was pleased that one of the first people she met, Sheryl Nichols in admissions, gave her hope.
“The unmet need in this population is so impossibly great … and Beacon is fueled by such a fiery passion to meet that need, it burns,” Serena says. “My dream is for another young person, another Serena, to walk down Main Street and know that even though they only have three pairs of clothes and some books to their name, even though they are lost and scared, Beacon can be their place.”
“We are seen as extraordinary,” Dr. George Hagerty, president of Beacon College, says of the small campus of 420 students.
“Every college says it’s student-centered, but if you’re truly going to be student-centered, it takes focus and a lot of hard work,” he adds. “We’re willing to do the hard work, which means working with students to help foster their confidence in themselves and in their ability to do college work, which we know they all can do. But, their K-to-12 experience taught them to be very, very gun-shy of any form of education.”
The college’s current students come from 41 states, territories, and Bermuda, England, Botswana, Kenya and India. In past semesters, foreign students have hailed from Bolivia, Bahamas, Nigeria and Canada.
Beacon’s teaching module features reaching students visually, kinesthetically and through hearing and experience. This is different from traditional academic education of grouping students together to get through school in an efficient manner.
“Some really high-tech things go on here, high-tech practices, education, and we do things that are researched and proven to be effective, and they really work,” says Beacon’s provost, Dr. Shelly Chandler, who has been at the college for 17 years. “We use multimodule teaching so that the teacher is not just standing up there lecturing. They are going to have the students practice what they are learning by applying things, they are going to have them reflect upon it, and we know when you combine those three things of presenting the facts, applying the knowledge and reflecting upon it, that the students are going to get a much better understanding of it and it leads to better critical thinking.”
She specifically touts the success of Beacon’s mathematics lab.
“About 32 percent of them have a really bad disability in math and it’s just the way that their brains are wired,” Shelly says. “We have a really good program that has a 97 percent success rate in math. We use artificial intelligence, a program called Alex and we have two full-time faculty members in the classroom at all times. Our students need extra help and it’s really one-on-one basically. They do really well with it here.”
The college also has learning specialists to help students with academic mentoring. “They are real advocates for the students,” she adds.
The school has generated buzz for its high student outcomes and competitive national rankings: 70 percent four-year graduation rate, 83 percent employment/graduate school placement and its listing as the No. 1 college or university in the nation for students with learning disabilities by bestvalueschools.com and Peterson’s, a college guidebook.
“We are happy how we’ve come out of nowhere with these rankings, but we take these very seriously,” George says. “Remember, a vast majority of our students were told that they probably would never go to college.”
Dr. Rosalyn Johnson, a 2009 Beacon alum, is one of those students.
“Her parents were told she would never walk, never speak and be very limited as what she can do academically,” says George, who notes Rosalyn is Beacon’s first graduate to go on to earn a doctorate in counseling psychology. She is a coordinator of outpatient therapeutic services/clinical supervisor in Miami.
“I believe that without Beacon I wouldn’t have been as aware of my strengths and weaknesses in regard to my learning disability,” Rosalyn states in Beacon’s 30th anniversary book, “Beacon College: The Unique History of a Singular Institution.”
“Beacon also helped me to use my learning disability to my advantage, rather than seeing it as a barrier or using it as a crutch, as some people tend to do when they have a limitation,” she adds. “However, I use my learning disability (which includes auditory processing difficulties) to fuel me to be even better and to go even further in life and in accomplishing my career goals and dreams.”
Beacon’s beginnings and future plans
A group of concerned parents noticed there was a lack of higher education institutions for students with special learning needs. Washington, D.C., attorneys Patricia and Peter Latham and Marsha Glines, Beacon’s first president, incorporated the college in May 1989. Beacon opened its doors that fall.
The Lathams’ son, John, is a Beacon graduate. “We thought he needed a school with a very strong learning disability program,” Patricia says in Beacon’s 30th anniversary book.
She adds that the school’s name was chosen to serve as a “beacon” to students with learning disabilities, and Leesburg was chosen as the location to attract students with its warm weather and close proximity to Orlando. The school’s first class produced nine graduates from a total student body of 36.
Now the college is preparing for 500 students by 2021. Beacon is building a new 100-student residence hall off Palmetto Street to be completed by August 2020, and the college’s biggest goal is to construct a 28,000-square-foot academic building to house more classrooms, faculty offices, seminar rooms and a large conference area/auditorium by 2023.
“We purchased the property two years ago with the help of a gift,” George says of land at Main and Canal streets. “It’s now about the truly gritty work of harnessing the goodwill of others for our $10 million capital campaign that has two needs; one is scholarship assistance, to have a $2 million scholarship endowment, and $8 million for the new academic building.”
Beacon, which owns 27 buildings in and around the city, has been praised for improving the looks of downtown Main Street with a face-lift of previously empty storefronts. The new academic building will “very honestly complete our place on Main Street,” George says.
Beacon College also has an international presence with study-abroad programs in Puerto Rico and Tuscany, Italy, and efforts are in the works for students to possibly travel to Tokyo for future semester studies.
Esteban Lopez, director of corporate and academic outreach for the college, focuses on getting students equipped to compete in the global marketplace for careers, including Fortune 500 companies like Dell, which now recruits Beacon students for summer internships and has hired students full time.
Marlene O’Toole oversees the First Career Community, a postgraduate program to make sure students can live on their own, which is all part of Beacon caring about its graduates beyond their college education.
“I have fallen emotionally and intellectually in love with Beacon College,” says retired Sen. Tom Harkin, of Iowa, who was the keynote speaker at Beacon’s 30th anniversary gala. “It’s a remarkable school, remarkable faculty, remarkable administrators, remarkable parents and families and, certainly, remarkable students.”
He praised Beacon’s top rankings among colleges and universities in serving students with learning differences.
“None of the others hold a candle to Beacon. It is in a class by itself,” he says. “We need to replicate this model because there are so many young people with different abilities who need the kind of academics, student living and social experiences that you have engineered here at Beacon.”
Beacon College’s president and faculty members have been invited to several countries around the globe to assess international education efforts for students with disabilities. Educators nationwide also come to Leesburg to observe the Beacon way.
“We invite educators in to see what we do, and they are extremely impressed,” Shelly says, adding that more than 100 educators in the United States and Puerto Rico recently visited, and another group will be at the college in December.
“We have to share our knowledge,” she says.
Beacon began with one major in 1989. It now offers nine majors and 16 minors.
Six in 10 Beacon students has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), while a smaller percentage deals with dyslexia.
Students struggling at a traditional school must be tested by a licensed psychologist in order to get a diagnosis of learning differences or attention issues. Students in K-12 sometimes can be tested by their school system.