UNION GROVE, Wis. — Wisconsin is home to one of the most unique college programs in the entire world, and that's not hyperbole. Shepherds College in Union Grove is one of the only, if not the only, accredited higher education facilities in the United States that is dedicated to exclusively teaching students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“When you experience a learning environment designed specifically for you, you’re going to thrive," Sarah Kolkman, the Director of Curriculum and Online Instruction at Shepherds College said.
Many colleges in the U.S. allow students with disabilities to audit classes or there may be a separate college attached to the main school. However, Shepherds College is its own entity. It's a stand-alone school specifically designed for teaching these students.
"The way that you learn is not boring. You are engaged, and it's fun learning," Eula Ferrell, a 19-year-old second-year student said.
The school is a three-year vocational program. There are 80 kids from around the country and the world enrolled at the school. In the first year, students get to try three programs: horticulture, culinary arts, and technology. During that trial period, they are assessed based on their strengths and interests. Afterward, they pick their major and spend the next two years studying that field.
The entire goal of the school is to give these kids opportunities for higher education after graduating high school. There aren't many programs for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities after high school. Shepherds College is filling in that gap and making it easier for them to get a job.
"They have unrealized potential, and we want to see them succeed," Kolkman said.
Most classes have an eight-to-one student-teacher ratio. Classes include instructors and paraprofessionals.
The school also has student housing. First-year students live in the dorms. Then in the second and third years, they can transition to apartments on campus.
"I am independent and I know how to take care of myself, (and) do my responsibilities without anyone having to tell me anything," Ferrell said.
She is in the second year of her culinary arts program. The college said she demonstrated so much maturity that she was able to move into the apartments earlier than most students. When she graduates she will have a culinary degree and the opportunity to start pursuing her dreams.
"I would actually like to in the future be able to get my own restaurant and also have a food truck," she said.
All classes are hands-on and designed to give students real-world skills that will help them succeed in their future jobs.
"For me, I like to learn about how to use the knife skills like cutting the vegetables and the fruits," second-year student, Hannah Simmons, said.
According to school officials, about 80 percent of students find a job in a field related to their major.
"After I am done graduating here at this college, I want to cook for me in the restaurant," Simmons said.
With such a high faculty-student ratio, that means that tuition costs can be expensive. Tuition for Shepherds College is about $55,000, according to Kolkman the Director of Curriculum. That's compared to a national average of $39,723 for private schools according to U.S. News and World Report. However, Kolkman still sees the school as very affordable.
"Honestly, if we charged students exactly what it cost them to be here, it would be way more. But because we're able to provide scholarships because students are able to find state funding, we want to keep the costs as manageable as possible," she said.
Shepherds College is a non-denominational school. They teach Bible classes, but Kolkman said that all faiths are accepted.
There's no doubt that the school is unique. It offers programs to people who are often overlooked. The college hopes that more students can access these resources so more people with intellectual and developmental disabilities can be given equal opportunities.