EAGLE Academy, a new, inclusive postsecondary education program and only the eighth one like it in all of Georgia, recently hosted an open house to showcase the new program and recognize supporters and founders of the initiative.
Georgia Southern’s newest academic program, EAGLE Academy, welcomed its first two students in fall 2017 as fully enrolled undergraduates. EAGLE, which stands for Equal Access to Gainful Learning and Employment, offers students a custom-built academic program based on their interests.
Georgia Southern President Jaimie Hebert welcomed those in attendance with heartfelt words about what he says will benefit not only students who take part in the program, but also their fellow comrades at the university and, ultimately, the community.
“At Georgia Southern, we value integrity, civility, kindness, collaboration, and a commitment to lifelong learning, wellness and social responsibility,” Hebert said. “They aren’t just buzzwords; they’re at the core of who we want to be.
“I believe EAGLE Academy is a shining example of our values as an institution. It’s a program that’s doing good for our campus, for our community and especially for these students, who are experiencing what a wide-open future can look like.”
Hebert gave the statistic that traditional high school students have some 7,000 options for study following graduation, with opportunities such as college and university degrees, trade school successes or specialized certificate trainings.
“For students with intellectual and developmental challenges, however, there are only 200 options for postsecondary study,” he said.
Georgia Southern is the eighth Georgia school to make this opportunity available to students, and only a couple of those eight house their program under the umbrella of the education department.
Shelley Woodward, the College of Education’s (COE) special education instructor and founding executive director of EAGLE Academy, said the idea for the program began with a conversation in which she was made aware of similar programs in the state. The idea took hold, and, she said, “I couldn’t stop talking about it. My brain wouldn’t stop.”
That was four years ago, and she didn’t stop until the program took flight in the fall. A lot of hard work, grant-writing, talking, researching, support and planning put the program into effect.
Karen Phipps serves as the program director for EAGLE Academy and oversees the day-to-day functions of the program. Graduate assistant Emily Lewis rounds out the Academy team. Woodward especially likes partnership with the COE.
“It’s a chance for special education pre-service teachers to see what the ultimate goal of their K-12 education is,” Woodward said. “It enriches so many different lives on so many different levels.”
The pre-service teachers serve as academic and social mentors and peer coaches.
“The [Academy] students engage with faculty, staff and the entire university, not just the College of Education, although we’ll claim it. We’re privileged to have it housed here with the College of Education,” said Dr. Thomas Koballa, dean of the COE.
Currently, the EAGLE Academy is a two-year program, but Koballa said it is one of his goals to make it a four-year program in the near future.
EAGLE Academy students receive specialized courses, in addition to academic ones, that help with life skills and independent living. They reside on campus and participate in on-campus jobs and off-campus internships in the community.
“These positions will not only help our special-needs students learn valuable skills to help them in the future, but their presence will build awareness and understanding within our campus community and within Statesboro and Bulloch County,” Hebert said.
Woodward said the program received huge support from the state consortium, Georgia Inclusive Postsecondary Education.
Locally, Synovus Bank has come alongside to promote the program, and Darron Burnette, division CEO of Synovus Bank, said he welcomed being part of the new initiative and pointed out that his family has a rich history with Georgia Southern, to include the COE.
“My wife is an educator in the community, and my daughter just received her education degree here,” Burnette said.
Hebert said he is thrilled that Georgia Southern now has yet another opportunity to make a real difference in a student’s life.
“So many intellectually and physically disabled students are told what they can’t do,” he said. “Well, they can come to Georgia Southern. And we’re proud of that.”