Rock Life Program in jeopardy

SRU administrators set teach-out date for spring 2023, while attempting to make program financially viable

Published by Joe Wells and Emma Velesig, Date: November 4, 2021
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Editor’s note: The father of a student in the Rock Life Program requested to remain anonymous. His child is also remaining anonymous, only being referred to as “his [the father’s] child” and “student.”

The parents of students in a specialized program for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities at Slippery Rock University are upset after finding out it will end by spring 2023.

The Rock Life Program, a non-degree seeking program that allows students to take courses for credit or audit them, has been placed into a teach-out phase, ending after the spring semester in 2023. According to SRU President William Behre, the decision is based on the finances of the program.

Despite a teach-out date of spring 2023 and no new admissions to Rock Life, Behre insisted that the program is not ending. He said the university will be hiring consultants to look at the program to make it better and self-sustainable.

That vision, which Behre describes as taking a “solid-Ford” and transforming it into a “Tesla” along the way, includes a stronger, onboarding process that allows the university to assess if potential students are the best fit for the program and a four-year curriculum, where students learn to advocate for themselves.

Even though he wants to make the program better, it is not a criticism of the program staff, Behre said. He said he understands that for the students and families in the program, it is great for them, but he wants to improve it.

According to parents who were asked to attend a meeting at the university on Oct. 29, they were told the decision came from those overseeing the program, and finances didn’t play a factor. Only current and former Rock Life staff spoke at the meeting, and no one from the administration attended.

“I am paying full tuition, room and board, for a meal plan and a fee for the [Rock Life] program,” a father of a Rock Life student said. “If that’s not enough, we were never told.”

The parent said they were informed by Rock Life staff that the program was self-sustaining. The father said if that information is incorrect, then he wants to see the budget numbers and hear from those making these decisions.

Both the program director and coordinator for Rock Life have claimed the program is self-sustained because of the amount of money it’s bringing in. But in an email, Behre said they “do not have a nuanced understanding of university finances.”

According to budget documents from the university’s finance office, for the current academic year, Rock Life is expected to cost $175,406, an amount equal to 0.0009% of the university’s total expenses. When factoring in that the program will receive $97,500 in revenue from fees directly to Rock Life, it shrinks to less than 0.0004%.

When including tuition and fees, Rock Life falls short of breaking even by $2,462.

Behre said factoring in tuition with their revenue is not accurate, since that money is spent on the cost of classes that students attend. But, in the budget documents, net revenue including tuition is accounted for.

The biggest expense for the program is staff costs, which includes 29 SRU students and three graduate students who will lose their jobs as coaches when Rock Life ends. Those students, a lot of whom are education majors or studying in fields of therapy, are paid through the program and account for $56,000 a year in staff costs – a little more than $1,700 a year per student coach and about half of the staff costs for the program.

In contrast, the program’s director receives about $27,300 in salary and benefits a year, along with the program coordinator, who receives about $68,750. This fiscal year, Behre is expected to receive $308,600 in salary, according to PennWatch.

More than money

For Krisztina Armstrong, a senior recreational therapy major and coach for Rock Life, the biggest loss is the experience she gains working with these students.

“It’s a slap in the face for anyone who focuses on this field,” she said.

Corrado Bello, a graduate adaptive physical activity student at SRU, said working with the Rock Life students and getting them involved with recreational sports has been an invaluable hands-on experience.

The benefits to both students and coaches have been something the father of a Rock Life student has appreciated. In his child’s experience, they have learned to be more independent and advocate for themselves and others, while the coaches have been able to better learn how to differentiate that each student is an individual through his child’s perspective.

Jean Richardson of Stroudsburg, PA, wrote to the university in June when asked to write letters of support, not knowing yet what the university had planned. She said the program has done wonders for her son Alek.

“Over the last three years, his growth, language, communication skills and ability to advocate for himself has improved tenfold,” Richardson wrote.

Richardson said the president’s decision to end the program that has done so much for her son is “atrocious.”

Valerie Prosser of Dormont said SRU’s decision says a lot about how the university views students with disabilities, as well as diversity on campus. She believes that if this program ends, the university is saying it “doesn’t care about these kids.”

Prosser said her daughter Kate came to the Rock Life program after Mercyhurst University shut down a similar program two years ago. She is worried that if she and other parents don’t speak up now, the university could shut down the program after the spring 2022 semester.

College of Education Senator Rebekah Froehlich is also concerned that the decision has not been talked about since parents were notified.

“I think a lot of times things happen on this campus and they kind of get swept under the rug a little bit,” Froehlich said.

Not enough time

Behre said the university is committed to the teach-out date for 2023 and that students and families have his word that it will not end before then. He added that for students who may need to go past the teach-out date, they will be able to continue the program “as intended” with access to all the support they receive now, including support coaches.

Currently, Rock Life has 19 students enrolled, with a majority of them not expected to complete the program by the teach-out date. Two students are expected to finish the program this spring, with another four to complete it the following spring, according to Zachary Baynham, the program coordinator for Rock Life.

The statement that students would be allowed to complete the program with full support after the end date was never communicated, multiple parents said. They said they were told to find another program or enroll as a regular student.

With the information they received last week, parents and coaches began to organize on Facebook under the banner “Rock Life Family & Friends.” A petition was also created on Change.org and has obtained over 9,100 signatures, as of Thursday afternoon.

Behre, who said he read the letters of support over the summer and is aware of the petition, said those types of campaigns may be useful if sent to someone who doesn’t believe in the program. For him, the question isn’t whether Rock Life is a good program or should SRU serve students with disabilities, but whether the program is financially responsible.

“You could bring me a petition with 15,000 signatures on it,” Behre said, who has a doctorate in education with a focus on special education policy from the University of Michigan. “That doesn’t change the fact that I’m going to do what’s both fiscally and educationally sound for this and a bunch of random people putting their name on a list doesn’t shape that at all.”

While not all the people who sign the petition identify themselves, Linda Zane, an SRU professor, signed in support of the program. She said the students have been a wonderful addition to her courses.

“The thought that the program may be eliminated is heartbreaking,” Zane wrote.

The president said he has a policy that allows faculty to visit his office and discuss a range of matters with him. Behre added that while he expects the consultants to provide him with unbiased feedback, faculty and staff can talk with him about his concerns Behre met with the Rock Life staff Thursday morning.

Updating the program

Both the current director of Rock Life, Jessica Hall-Wirth, and former director, Wendy Fagan said they were never consulted about the proposed teach-out or asked for input on how to improve the program, prior to Thursday. According to Behre, it is rare for the president of the university to sit and talk with staff. He said decisions like that for Rock Life are communicated through a “chain of command.”

When it came to feedback about the program in the past, Hall-Wirth said comments from those above her had always been positive.

Hall-Wirth said the decision by the university has been hard for her because of the strong passion she has to make SRU as inclusive as possible. When asked if there was or will be any pushback from her or the Rock Life program to continue to operate, Hall-Wirth said it would be more effective to advocate for the students by telling their stories.

“I’m more of a follower, doing things as told by the university,” Hall-Wirth said.

According to Behre, a previous director of the program was able to bring in a lot of funding through grants but has since retired. Since the retirement, grant money for the program decreased significantly and the program is not sustainable in the long term.

Behre would like the program to move away from soft money – grants and donations – to one that relies on revenue from fees and federal and state funding.

But, in order to help support the vision Behre has for Rock Life, he said he would need to hire two to three more personnel and an employee whose job is to secure that funding.

Fagan, an instructor at SRU and the program’s former director, said reducing the reliance on soft money and becoming self-sustainable has been the program’s plan since the president took office.

The Rock Life program has not received any grant money since August 2020, according to Dennis Washington, the vice president of university advancement at SRU.

Despite not wanting grant money to fund the program, Behre said he is seeking out philanthropic means to fund the first year of the hypothetical updated program to get it on its feet. A meeting about funding is expected to take place on Nov. 8.

The president believes it is doable because he helped establish a program similar to Rock Life while at The College of New Jersey. That four-year program has a tuition rate like that of graduate courses, due to the small class sizes, according to Behre.

Whether a future Rock Life program would look like the one in New Jersey remains unknown, but Behre expects the consultants to come up with a plan tailored to SRU.

The Rock Life Program at SRU is one of 29 similar programs offered in the state, including seven Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) universities. All of the universities are a part of the Pennsylvania Inclusive Higher Education Consortium (PIHEC). Last year, Rock Life received about $28,700 from the group.

There is no time frame for when those consultants will be contracted and if they will be able to develop a plan that meets the administration’s definition of self-sustainable. Still, even putting a hold on Rock Life doesn’t make sense for a school that talks about inclusivity, a parent said.

“For a school that values diversity and acceptance and has a reputable special education program, ending Rock Life is not a way to demonstrate that acceptance and diversity,” the father said.

Joe is a senior communication major with concentrations in converged journalism and digital media production. This is his second year with The Rocket and first as the news editor. With a penchant for asking tough questions, his byline can be found on more than 100 articles for The Rocket including many breaking news and investigative pieces. During the hours he’s not wearing the hat of student journalist, he spends his time as a husband, father and dog owner in Slippery Rock.

Assistant News Editor at The Rocket

Emma is a junior history major with a minor in business administration. She is the assistant news editor for her first year in the Rocket. Throughout her high school years, she was a part of the school’s newspaper and served as the editor-in-chief her senior year. Her dream is to enter the public history field and work for the Smithsonian.

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