Jonathan Else had looked forward to this day for years, so when he stepped up to the podium Friday at Village Glen School to receive his high school diploma, it was a "huge moment."
It was made even more special when the 19-year-old thanked his family for never giving up on him. Else, who has autism, was one of 19 students with cognitive and emotional disorders who took part in the graduation ceremony at the Sherman Oaks school.
But for Else and most of the other students, graduation represents not the end of an educational road but a beginning that once might have seemed unimaginable.
Else is entering UCLA this fall in a new extension program that will provide developmentally disabled students with a rigorous liberal arts curriculum as well as the social, recreational and cultural experiences of a major university. Classmate Reggie Cornelius, 17, has been accepted into the Culinary School of California in Pasadena. Mimi Keil, 19, wants to become a pediatric nurse and will be taking classes at North Valley Occupational Center.
Village Glen School is one of seven campuses in the Los Angeles area run by the Help Group, which provides therapeutic and educational programs for children and young adults with special needs, including autism, Asperger's disorder, mental retardation and emotional disorders. The school is nonprofit; the vast majority of students receive funding from public school districts.
Many Village Glen students struggle with communication and other social skills, as well as the natural anxieties of being a high school student and teenager. Nearly all of them have plans to attend community or vocational college and some even four-year schools.
"I'm taking a big step into becoming an actual woman," said Sarah Jones, who graduated from Village Glen on Friday and turned 19 the day before.
Jones will attend Moorpark College and study drama. "I'm finding something for myself without someone else telling me what's best for me," she said.
Nationally, only about 13% of young people with developmental disabilities ever attend a college class. But as more researchers look at the diagnosis and treatment of autism and related disorders, there is a growing focus on providing autistic children with postsecondary schooling that will lead to jobs and real independence.
"There's a stereotype of what can be accomplished in life with learning disabilities," said Jan Moss, executive director of the National Assn. of Therapeutic Schools and Programs. "But it's just a matter of making accommodations -- the student learning to work with their disability rather than work against, and for schools learning what accommodations they need. In high school, there has been more of an emphasis on academics, and that has helped. But we still have a long way to go."
Autism -- characterized by language delays, limited social skills, repetitive and other unusual behavior -- is the fastest growing disability in the U.S., more prevalent than childhood cancer and juvenile diabetes. More boys than girls are affected, at a ratio of about 4 to 1.
While Village Glen is a diploma-track school, one of its main missions is to help students understand practical social skills, such as how to accept criticism and how to take no for an answer, said clinical director Mary Bauman. For the first time this year the school had intramural sports teams, in basketball and track. Village Glen also hired a full-time college counselor and sponsors a spring college and career night.
"They identify now with the wider world and realize now they're a part of it," Bauman said.
Molly Doucette, who graduated Friday, works at a preschool operated by the Help Group, reading and helping youngsters with their daily routines. She plans to attend Valley College and take a child development class to become a teacher's aide or teacher.
"I'm excited about graduation because I put a lot of work into getting there," said Doucette, who will be sharing an off-campus apartment with several roommates. "When I came here, my goal was to graduate, go to college and get a job. It's a little scary to be off on my own, but I think I'm ready."
Else is more than ready to head off to UCLA.
"I like to say my two favorite teams are UCLA and whoever's playing USC," he joked.
Called Pathway, the UCLA program was spawned 10 years ago by parents who wanted to give their developmentally disabled children a taste of real-world college life, said Eric Latham, the program's executive director.
UCLA is one of the first major research universities with a program designed for students with special needs. The school accepted 16 students into the two-year certificate program in September and will enroll another 16 next year. Students will be housed in a Westwood Village apartment in shared rooms.
The cost of the program -- $20,325 for tuition and services -- is borne by students and their families. Because it is a certificate program, under state law students cannot apply for financial aid.
The curriculum will include arts, humanities, social sciences and practical living skills. Students will be encouraged to participate in campus life, pairing with students pursuing regular degrees. In a way, the students will be pioneers because there is so little research on postsecondary outcomes for students with special needs.
"We know college for any American increases employability and lifetime earnings, and we're realizing that students with intellectual disabilities are not any different," Latham said. "We want to use internship opportunities, the typical college kind of thing students will do, to give them the exposure."
Karen Else, Jonathan's mother, said she and her husband are thrilled their son will have such an opportunity because there are so few options for students such as Jonathan after high school.
"The No. 1 thing is that he be happy, feel good about himself, be able to function somewhat independently and contribute," she said.