Dan Marino Foundation plans downtown Fort Lauderdale college for the developmentally disabled
FORT LAUDERDALE — The Dan Marino Foundation's plans for a downtown college for the developmentally disabled could give students the real-world experiences they need to make it on their own.
For the foundation started by the former Miami Dolphins quarterback in 1992 after his 2-year-old son Michael was diagnosed with autism, the first-of-its-kind college in Florida is a natural next step.
Many of the college's students would live in nearby apartments and use readily available public transportation as they develop their independence. The school's goal is to get students jobs or to prepare them to be successful in a traditional college program.
"We're here to teach the skills, provide the supports and reduce the supports as the program goes along," said Kerri Parmelee, the foundation's transition program director.
A state analysis last year found that of 7,920 developmentally disabled students who left school district programs in 2008, only a fifth of them entered a post-secondary or adult education program the following year.
"A lot of our young adults are sitting at home, doing nothing," said Susan Morantes, the foundation's vice president for disability services. "We need to prepare them."
The foundation's endeavors for the developmentally disabled include Weston's Dan Marino Center — a partnership with Miami Children's Hospital — as well as a research institute and a summer job program for teens and young adults.
To house the college, the foundation paid $2.75 million last year for a three-story building in the 400 block of North Andrews Avenue. The school would be for students ages 18 to 28 who have been diagnosed with autism, Asperger's syndrome, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other disabilities.
Federal and state-mandated services for the developmentally disabled are only available up to age 22. The college would be open to those who have graduated from high school or those who did not graduate and are too old to be eligible for school district services.
Legislation this year to make the Marino Foundation's vocational college part of the state's higher education system passed the state Senate's higher education committee in January. The foundation is also seeking $1 million from the state for building renovations.
Foundation officials aren't confident the state designation will come through — Gov. Rick Scott vetoed similar legislation last year — but they are prepared to run the college as a private entity if the state effort fails.
The goal is to open the campus in the fall of 2013. The college will probably start off with no more than 60 students, officials said.
The North Andrews building would be the heart of college life, housing its student union, an art studio, a student lounge, fitness center and classrooms.
The building won't be a cocoon for students, who will be out on job sites, training programs or taking courses on other college campuses. Some students will participate in existing certificate programs — in auto mechanics, the culinary arts or other fields — offered in the region. The college is also developing a relationship with Nova Southeastern University for students to use its campuses.
"We wanted to create something, much like a two-year community college, but it's totally focused on vocational," said Mary Partin, the foundation's chief executive officer.
Partin anticipates an annual tuition of about $7,500 for the two-year program. The foundation wants students to have access to Pell grants and other financial aid available to college students.
The schedule would be divided into 15-week trimesters with 16 credit hours each, Partin said. Classes and other programs offered by the college would also be available to all.
"We are looking to become licensed and accredited and offering a certificate," Parmelee said.
Carmela Petruzelli, who co-owns The Factory Salon next to the foundation's building, said the college would be a needed shot in the arm for the area.
"They're going to upgrade the neighborhood, get rid of some of the sluminess," Petruzelli said.
The building will be renovated, the parking lot landscaped and improved, and a courtyard for students will be created behind the building, Morantes said.
Partin said the location is ideal for prospective students — close to public transportation, shops and services.
"They are perfect urbanites to live downtown," Partin said of would-be students, many of whom can't drive.
Chris Wren, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, said the college would be a welcome addition on the edge of downtown.
"I'm glad to see someone going in there and investing in it," Wren said. "It comes with a great name. I love Dan Marino. I think it's awesome."