PUTNEY — Chris Pratt knows how hard it can be for students with learning disabilities.
"I'm someone who grew up with a learning disability - a learning difference," said Pratt, Windham Southwest Supervisory Union superintendent. "So it's important to me not just personally but professionally that we try to find opportunities for these kids who have not seen a lot of successes in their lives - to get that spark in the college environment."
Students in Windham Southwest and two other supervisory unions will have that opportunity via a new partnership with Putney-based Landmark College, which specializes in serving students with learning difficulties.
The deal extends Landmark educational programming - including dual-enrollment courses for college credit - to students in the Windham Southeast, Windham Southwest and Windham Central supervisory unions. It also makes Landmark's professional development services available to those unions at a discounted rate.
While the regional partnership carries benefits for the college and the supervisory unions, Landmark President Peter Eden said there's a more important reason to join forces.
"The bigger vision here, the bigger goal is to give these particular students some success," Eden said. "To give them some confidence, so they're emboldened and they can move on to college. And not just college - a career."
Landmark College opened in 1985 and was a pioneer in tailoring college programs to students with dyslexia.
More than three decades later, Landmark administrators say their niche is to "exclusively serve students who learn differently." That includes students with dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder.
The college has continued to evolve, offering its first bachelor's degree programs in 2012 and recently expanding its physical facilities.
Thursday's announcement represents a different sort of expansion. Building on a partnership with Brattleboro Union High School, Landmark now has a memorandum of understanding with three supervisory unions that cover most of Windham County.
The agreement, which took effect Jan. 1 and continues indefinitely, has three main elements:
Students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades can participate in Landmark's summer program, titled "Expanded Learning Opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics."
That program started last year and is scheduled to expand into two offerings in summer 2017 - computer science and forensic science.
Like Landmark's other programs, the summer offering is geared toward students with learning disabilities. The idea is to impart so-called "STEM" skills and problem-solving abilities as well as a degree of confidence - a feeling of "this is OK, I can do this, I can handle this," said Susan Grabowski, Landmark's director of short-term programs.
Windham Central Superintendent Bill Anton sees such programs as an important opportunity, given that one in five of his supervisory union's students has a learning difficulty.
"It's almost like a preview giving kids a taste of what learning can look like," Anton said. "And doing it in an expert environment."
Students in the three supervisory unions also can take Landmark courses for college credit. Currently, the college's dual-enrollment offerings include introduction to communication, introduction to public speaking and perspectives in learning, though administrators say they're looking to expand that curriculum.
Such courses are available at Landmark or online - a key feature for students who don't live near Putney or don't have readily available transportation.
Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley said some of his students already have partaken of Landmark courses via an agreement with Windham Regional Collegiate High School. "I think these online opportunities are just going to expand our involvement," Stahley said.
Administrators said the courses are tailored to those with learning difficulties, and that extends beyond the coursework itself.
Manju Banerjee, Landmark's vice president for educational research and innovation, noted that "many of our students get lost in college in the verbiage of a syllabus." So the college's syllabi are set up day-by-day with assignment due dates displayed prominently.
"That is the trigger for students who often have difficulty turning in assignments on time," Banerjee said. "It starts with the essentials - it's ordered in a different way."
The supervisory unions also have discounted access to professional development programs at Landmark. Administrators said the college's Institute for Research and Training has a variety of offerings for educators including workshops, webinars, a summer institute and an innovation symposium.
"It's a fabulous resource that we have here," Pratt said. "We just need to tap into it more."
Also included in the new agreement is a fundraising/grant-writing arrangement between the college and the supervisory unions.
While dual-enrollment courses are funded via a state voucher program, there is a charge for the middle school and professional development offerings, said Lynne Feal-Staub, Landmark's director of grants and sponsored programs.
Landmark is offering assistance to find funding to keep those costs relatively low, Feal-Staub said. "The schools don't have, necessarily, a lot of resources to pump out grant applications," she said. "We have the resources here."
Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.