A first of its kind is right here in Southwest Florida, and it’s helping students with intellectual disabilities transition from high school to college. It’s teaching students how to become independent in the real world.
Some mornings, you will find Michael Tulipano paddling out at Lowdermilk Park in Naples.
“Being told he would never throw a ball or hold onto a monkey bar, to see him paddle out there … it just makes me smile,” said Stephanie Dangler, Tulipano’s mother.
Tulipano defies the odds, sets goals and reaches them.
Dangler said it hasn’t always been easy for Michael to get a good education because of his intellectual disabilities.
“The programs in the middle schools after coming out of elementary were limited,” Dangler said. “So I rented a house and moved so my son could be in the best program.
When they heard about Florida Gulf Coast University’s new Soaring Eagle Academy, it brought them joy.
“I cried when I literally heard there was one,” Dangler said.
They knew they wanted to apply in hopes Tulipano’s education could continue at a higher, practical level.
“These students have been in school their whole lives and received a general education, and now, their peers are going off to college,” said Doug Carothers, a professor of education at FGCU. “And it’s only fair that students who want to learn should attend college just like their friends.”
The rare program is offered in 298 schools nationwide. It consists of 39 credit hours over six consecutive semesters.
Students attend classes, have homework, and learn how to live independently.
“This is not just coming and going for classes,” Carothers said. “It’s the whole college experience.”
“Learn how to travel,” Dangler said. “Transportation is huge. Living on their own, cooking, cleaning and working in the community.”
Michael Tulipano hopes to be part of the FGCU program. It begins in August, and applications are being accepted now.
“I almost hesitate to say we even welcome them because they will be us and a part of us,” Carothers said.