Giant Wildcat Academy brings college to life and creates relationships for students with disabilities right out of high school.
GWA is a post-secondary education program for students who are mild to moderately disabled and have already graduated high school. GWA is a partnership between Marion Community Schools and Indiana Wesleyan University, which gives students (ages 18 to 22) an opportunity to explore the world beyond the walls of Marion High School.
The program gives the students a modified version of college. They take one college class, a class with a special education teacher and have a mentor.
“They have a class with me where we work on their goals they have for life. Life skill goals, social skills goals and anything that will prepare them to go into the world to live on their own or to work,” said Jamie Westgate, special education teacher for the GWA program.
The GWA helps students to become more independent and self-sufficient, teaching them how to navigate school with a greater sense of individuality and maturity than they had in high school.
Justin Sparks, a student in the GWA program, said his favorite thing about the program is that he has the opportunity to meet and get to know new people and help them out in various ways.
“GWA has changed me because when I was in high school I used to not talk to anyone, but being here has helped me to open up and talk to people more,” Sparks said.
The GWA teaches students life skills they can then use once they are on their own.
“It’s just amazing to see their progress and to see them change from what they thought was going to be so hard, challenging and scary, to just a wonderful experience and getting to see them grow,” said Renee Arenibar, education liaison for the program.
The program’s structure also allows the students to leave the with a job, in hopes it will be a job they enjoy and stick with.
Westgate said this program differs from high school because it allows the students to live independently. This program provides students with an experience where they learn management and problem solving skills.
Additionally, those interested in becoming involved in helping with the GWA don’t have to be students.
“If I could tell people one thing I just want people to know that you don’t have to be a student to be a mentor, even adults can be mentors. Anyone who wants to share their time, we encourage to become a mentor,” Arenibar said.