Perkins’ Compass Program Prepares Students for College Success

A female student seated at a desk completing a math assignment with an Orion TI calculator and Iphone both visible on the table.

This nine-month virtual learning experience focuses on individual needs.

By Amy Lynn Smith

It should come as no surprise that Perkins School for the Blind – one of the best-known and most highly respected educational institutions in the world for students who are visually impaired and those who teach them – encourages students to reach for the stars. This doesn’t end after high school graduation, nor is it limited to students who attend Perkins.

According to Leslie Thatcher, Ed.M., Director of College Success@Perkins, about five years ago Perkins began recognizing a significant gap in college readiness among students who are visually impaired. After trying an on-campus program for high school graduates, Perkins discovered a better approach.

The result is Compass, a nine-month virtual program for students in 9th through 12th grade, as well as their families and educators, typically a teacher of the blind and visually impaired (TVI). Rather than a set curriculum, Compass uses a coaching model to work with students at an individual level.

“It’s a model that’s used in a lot of college disability service offices and academic advising offices,” Thatcher says. “It’s very much focused on digging into who that individual student is: What are their preferences? What are their likes and dislikes? Where is there a need for skill development and behavioral change? Understanding a student’s readiness for change that could promote growth and additional self-awareness really helps us drill down to where a student is in their mindset and their acceptance of their vision loss in their identity development. Then we begin to build awareness based on those authentic conversations.”

So far, 100% of students have reported a greater awareness of their likes, dislikes and preferences as a result of the program, according to the website.

“Part of what we’ve been working on is helping students acknowledge what skills and knowledge they have and what areas they need to grow in,” Thatcher says. “There can be a mismatch between their perceptions and the key skills they’ll need in college.”

What’s more, although college readiness in terms of academic achievement is central to the program, there’s more to Compass than that. There are also life skills that students need in order to be prepared for college. For example, according to Perkins only 60% of the high school students they worked with could cross a residential or commercial street on their own, which is essential for navigating a college campus. Perkins recognizes that a broad spectrum of independent living skills is needed for students to attend college. While Compass does not teach these skills directly, “we help students and their Learning Triads recognize areas of need, and strategize ways to gain those skills through changes in dynamics or expectations at home, or school, or through training,” Thatcher says.  

A unique teaching and learning model

Compass includes up to 30 hours of individual coaching over the nine-month program, which is typically conducted via Zoom to help students sharpen their technology skills. There’s in-depth learning involved, and to gauge a student’s level of ability Perkins has created a College Readiness Checklist. This tool helps students and their families consider the fundamental skills needed to attend college – and gives the program’s coaches insights they can use to build each student’s individual program.

“Ideally a student might complete the checklist in middle school and again in high school,” Thatcher says. “Being capable of researching independently, and writing and editing a five- to seven-page paper are not skills you learn overnight. Plus, we triangulate the results and sit down with the learning team. While the student might say ‘Sure, I’ve written at least a three-page paper,’ their TVI might say, ‘Actually, they haven’t done that yet.’”

This vital information on the gap between student perceptions and their actual skills is vital for developing the coaching plan, which includes every aspect of both educational and life skills a student might need, from knowing enough different types of technology and devices to ensure accessibility to being able to stand up for their educational rights, which are different in college than in K-12.

In addition to individual coaching, there are monthly three-hour weekend sessions for the entire cohort, the first of which was 12 students, their families and educators. These workshops offer students a shared learning experience, shared language and shared knowledge base that helps them build relationships with each other. There’s typically an element such as a panel of college students, recent graduates or people on the job market who share their experiences, as well as information about other training resources such as World Services for the Blind. Each workshop ends with breakout groups, for students and adults to reflect on presentations or additional topics.

There’s also a parent-specific group that meets once a month. “There was a very clear need for parents to be able to spend more time together, sharing experiences and connecting,” Thatcher says. “We also deliver specific talks about topics such as standardized tests and the state of college admissions targeted toward the adult experience.”

Matching expectations to students’ aspirations and skills

One crucial aspect of Compass is helping families and students understand that all college experiences are not alike. As Thatcher says, there’s not one “monolithic set of expectations” but there are foundational skills students must work toward.

“Students need to recognize that college can look many different ways, but it does require that you read a quantity of material that you’re able to do something with,” she explains. “You have to be able to produce responses to that material in both written form and spoken form. Some students really love it but they just haven’t had the chance to do it yet.”

What’s more, Thatcher says, only about 50% of students of all abilities choose to attend college – because college simply isn’t for everyone. Some students may not want to leave home, whether or not they’re visually impaired, which means exploring online college experiences.

“This world demands a wide range of skills, whatever a student’s goals are,” she adds. “Maybe it’s gainful employment, community engagement, or college and professional career aspirations. It’s all possible.”

Thatcher says the collaboration between Perkins and the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) ConnectCenter Transition Hub provides support that goes hand-in-hand. “We can work with families using the Transition Hub to say, ‘Let’s find you the right programs and agencies in your state,’” she explains. “Perkins is launching our own college readiness resource in July and the information there is going to complement APH’s Transition Hub. And Compass will continue to be offered as a virtual program, so we can provide as much access and flexibility to students and their families as possible.”