History of The Learning Program
In June 2001, Down Syndrome Foundation (DSF) launched a monthly support group to connect local families and provide a forum for sharing information. Meetings focused on social, therapeutic and educational topics. By 2004, the group had grown to 25 regularly participating families. Topics on teaching reading, educational resources, inclusion and behavior support drew standing-room only crowds. The group’s demand for education set the stage for DSF’s most innovative and impactful work: development and implementation of The Learning Program™.
From May 2004 through July 2005, DSF, in collaboration with Down Syndrome Association of Orange County (DSAOC) and input from a professional advisory board, planned and hosted the program’s pilot year. Held at a local church, parent sessions focused on literacy, with content developed by Terry Brown, who was already working in Orange County to support learners with Down syndrome through her So Happy To Learn program. Student sessions incorporated aspects of this program and were staffed by volunteers. The success of the pilot confirmed the program model as an effective way to provide direct educational support to families.
The second program year brought many adjustments. Recognizing the importance of sharing evidence-based practices, the program’s advisory board took a more active role in guiding development, with monthly meetings and curriculum review. Credentialed teachers and licensed therapists were hired to lead student sessions. Sessions moved from the church basement to DSAOC’s office with separate space for parent and student classes and storage of educational resources. A second, higher, level of instruction was developed to accommodate those families who had already participated in the pilot and wanted continued education. By September 2005, the program served 35 families.
Each subsequent program year brought further curriculum development and more families. The advisory board continued to play a vital role in development, with the addition and refinement of modules on literacy, memory, comprehension, math and educational options and, most recently, alignment to Common Core Standards. Guidance from Sue and Frank Buckley (Down Syndrome Education International), Professors Mark Warschauer and Penny Collins (University of California, Irvine), Professor Susan Leonard-Giesen (California State University, Long Beach), Nicki Presby (credentialed teacher), Kim Courtney Bowman (occupational therapist), and Linda Tyson (speech therapist), among others, helped DSF construct an innovative and broad-reaching program that uses evidence-based approaches to teaching children with Down syndrome. From its original 21 families, the program grew to serve over 100 families monthly, with children ranging in age from two through fifteen years.
In 2009, DSF partnered with Down Syndrome Education International (DSEI) to form Down Syndrome Education USA (DSEUSA). Together, DSF and DSEUSA opened Orange County’s first Down syndrome-specific developmental research and training center and moved Learning Program sessions to this dedicated space. With its base in Newport Beach, California, The Learning Program™ is now a model for parent-focused educational intervention, delivered in partnership with Down syndrome organizations across the nation.
The Learning Program™ has served as a springboard for DSF’s other local and national services. DSF now offers year-round educational opportunities for teachers, parents and students, provides individual and group tutoring, hosts a monthly Teen Time program, and provides educational training at local and national conferences. Learning program resources are available for free through DSF’s website and are accessed by over 9,000 registered users worldwide.