National attention for Bellevue College OLS

Since its advocacy in summer 2011 and accreditation in December 2006 by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the Occupational Life Skills program has become an integral component of Bellevue College, receiving national attention for being the only program that offers personal enrichment courses and associate’s degree to adults with cognitive disabilities. It has become a model which other schools, such as Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, Arkansas, and Lone Star College in Houston, Texas, plan to replicate.

With the graduation of their seventh class, BC’s OLS is preparing for their new cohort of students for the next school year and the launch of NACC’s and LSC’s OLS program on Aug. 24.
“The directors for the OLS have been hired and trained for both colleges,” said BC’s OLS National Director Marci Muhlestein.

BC’s OLS, however, will not stop with LSC and NACC. Although these two institutions will be the first to pilot BC’s model, other colleges such as Centralia College, have expressed their interest in the program, due to the high employment rate amongst BC’s OLS alumni.

According to Muhlestein, “We have about 79 colleges following us and we have eight or nine colleges visiting us.” As a result, “Dr. Rule wanted to take this nationally,” recalled Muhlestein.

BC’s OLS plans to become the national headquarters that supports other colleges to replicate the program, similar to a “franchise model,” according to Muhlestein. “We’ll be the backbone and we’ll provide them with everything that they need to replicate the program, but we’ll continue to be that person  that they’ll come back to for more training,” explained Muhlestein.

BC’s OLS model has been proven successful. “About 92 percent of our alumni are employed,” illustrated Muhlestein, “They’re doing about 25 hours per week and earn two or three dollars above the minimum wage.”

Program Manager for BC’s OLS Cheryl Porter credits the success of their model to the organization of the program.

“The OLS is a purposefully structured four-year program for the students to really figure out what their strengths, passions and values are,” explained Porter. “Through very intentional coursework, they’re able to define what their career pathways are based on who they are.”

Furthermore, during the last year of the program, OLS students participate in a 200-hour internship. Students, with the help of internship coordinator Pilar Lopez, find opportunities throughout Washington.

“One student did an internship at a bakery and another student did an internship at a Bellevue school district as a paraprofessional,” said Porter.

Aside from the internship and organization, Porter believes the success of the OLS also comes from the integration of “21st century skills” into the courses. These skills help students understand the important qualities an employee must maintain in a work environment.

Within each course, students review the 15 performance indicators which include professionalism, teamwork and self-determination. Students are given a score from one to four, with three being minimum grade for each indicator.

In order to successfully graduate from the program, students must meet 10 out of 15 of the performance indicators.

“These 21st century skills are really for the workforce and what the workforce wants in their employees,” said Porter.

With visibility of this program increasing, Muhlestein and Porter are expecting a continuous size increase. Currently, the total number of students, including the new cohort, for next school year will cap at 80 however, the program will expand to other Washington campuses if the size grows over 100. “We’re going to keep it at 100 students and expand to another campus and become sister schools,” said Muhlestein.

“We don’t want to go over a 100 students in a complete group of students because we believe that we won’t be able to deliver a quality program,” Porter explained.

BC’s OLS will continue to serve and educate the “underserved population that can’t access higher education,” according to Muhlestein, while becoming the national network for other institutions that are interested in implementing the program.

“With the outcome being so positive, it really shows that OLS is worth it,” said Porter.