The Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute at the University of Central Florida offers a wide range of educational and outreach programs for exceptional students, their teachers, and their families in the central Florida region, and one such program is wrapping up its pilot year on May 2nd.

The Learning Program, coordinated by TJEEI scholar Jennifer Holbrook and doctoral candidate Matt Taylor, provided unique and extensive educational opportunities to students with Down Syndrome ages 5-7 as well as their families during this school year. The students worked throughout both semesters on lessons and activities in reading, math, speech and language, and occupational therapy. At the same time, parents studied with UCF faculty members Lisa DiekerRebecca Hines, and Maria Reyes on ways to continue their students’ educational development and achievement at home.

In addition to the benefits for the participants and their families, UCF students gained valuable experience and in-service credit opportunities while working directly with students with Down Syndrome. Jennifer Holbrook, co-coordinator of this year’s program, tells us that they have had “anywhere from 9 to 16 student volunteers – undergrad, graduate, doctoral candidates, most of whom need some type of service learning credit for their class(es). We’ve had students who have started in the fall and liked it so much that they have continued with us even once they no longer need any credit.”

“It’s been an amazing experience, and it’s been a wonderful way of giving back to the community,” Jennifer Holbrook tells us. “I have a history of working with people with Down syndrome, so it is kind of in my blood to work with these students, and it has been a joy to partner with the organization and to partner with them throughout the year. It takes what Toni Jennings wanted this (the institute) to be and puts it into practice.”

The 2014-2015 school year was the first year of this program at UCF, and the hope is to expand next year and raise the number to 30 exceptional students who are participating in the program and receiving individual and group education in these various program areas. The success of this first year is evident not only in the 5-7 year olds and their progress, but also in the attitudes, experience, and accomplishments of UCF education students and the recognition of the Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute in the community.

“I think that the benefit for the Institute as well as UCF students is just to open their eyes to children with disabilities and families who deal with children who have disabilities,” Jennifer continues. “The fact of the matter is that most classes these days, you’re going to have at least one student, if not more than one student, who has an exceptionality. So it’s really opened the students’ eyes to what these kids are like, because they may never have worked with students like this before. And for the (Toni Jennings Exceptional Education) Institute, one of the benefits is just building our name out in the community. People are seeing that this is something that TJEEI is doing for our community.”

The Learning Program‘s school year wrap-up event on May 2nd will have a regular class during the first part of the day and then a graduation for the students afterwards, and the Down Syndrome Foundation has invited all of the student volunteers and participants to a celebratory dinner at the conclusion of this semester as well. For additional information on programs like this one offered by the Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute, visit the Institute’s website.