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Spring 2014

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Support System

CAL Director Madalay Fleming with William McDonald

By Rebecca Wakefield

Barry’s innovative center for advanced learning is helping students with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders succeed.

William McDonald was a typical Barry student in many ways. Born and raised in Miami, he dreamed of getting a degree that would lead to a career in occupational therapy. But having struggled through high school with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and severe test anxiety, he knew that college was not going to be easy for him.

So McDonald became proactive. When he registered at Barry, he also signed up with Barry’s groundbreaking Center for Advanced Learning (CAL), which assists students with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.

“I wouldn’t have graduated without this program,” McDonald says without hesitation. “I felt like I had the space to mature in my own time. It was a tool to make myself better, not a crutch.”

The idea is to help students develop skills and strategies that will allow them to successfully navigate through college, regardless of their personal challenges. The program carries a fee per semester and requires a significant commitment of time and effort.

McDonald, who graduated in December 2013 with a Bachelor of Science, is “the poster child” for CAL success stories, says the center’s director, Madalay Fleming. He is currently working at a medical supply company and saving to get his master’s degree in occupational therapy.

“William is a work horse,” Fleming effuses. “He was the first one to get here in the morning and the last one to leave. He liked to joke, ‘I’m just milking it for all it’s worth.’ He made complete use of the program.”

The 17-year-old program is robust and nearly unique to Barry University, Fleming says. Although colleges typically have an office of disability services that ensures basic compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the CAL program goes far beyond.

Students are taught to recognize their learning profiles and to develop the best strategies for getting what they need out of every situation. They must spend a minimum of four hours a week with professional tutors who have higher educational degrees in specific areas.

They also learn skills such as time management, organization, note-taking, effective test preparation, stress management, and study skills. Students have nearly unlimited use of CAL’s computers and assistive technology. Beyond that, they learn how to ask for help when they need it and how to communicate effectively with their professors.

An important element of the program is that CAL students are just like everyone else. They take the same classes as other degree seekers. They just have to work harder to overcome their personal variety of challenges, generally one or more learning disabilities, sometimes coupled with mental health issues such as anxiety or a depressive disorder.

Fleming is responsible for the 40 to 50 CAL students present in a given semester. She’s an advisor, helping them select professors and strategies that best match their learning style. She’s an advocate, setting up meetings to resolve issues ranging from academics to housing or student life. And when necessary, she’s the whip, riding those who aren’t putting in the necessary effort. But in all her roles, her main goal is to simply phase herself out. One measure of success is for students to gain the skills and confidence to eventually transition to independent learning.

“We chase them a little. If they aren’t coming in, we call, we text, we email,” acknowledges Fleming. “I have checking-in appointments with ones who are in trouble or on the way to being in trouble. I arrange for extra support.”

Fleming recalls a student who was reading at a third-grade level, for whom she arranged private reading tutoring sessions. For another student struggling in a physics course, she set up a meeting with the professor to find solutions to the student's issues.

Fleming recalls one dyslexic student from the Virgin Islands who broke down and cried on registration day at Barry because she couldn’t believe she’d made it to college.

“‘I was told I was never going to finish high school and here I am in college,’” Fleming recalls the student telling her through tears. “She evolved from a timid, not-confident young woman to belonging to two honor societies and graduating with honors. And she is now very successful in public relations.”

For McDonald, who lost his mother during his academic journey, Fleming and the CAL program became even more critical.

“Maddy was like a second mother,” he says softly. “The program was all I had pushing and supporting me, keeping me going. I didn’t have to feel like [learning] was a brick wall. It was a blessing.”