Transitioning Learners to College (TLC) Offers Students with Disabilities a Diverse College Experience and a Circle of Support

Wednesday, September 20, 2023
Donna Gammage and Bryan Heckler stand in front of Phoenix College's E building where the TLC homeroom is housed.
Justin was a TLC student from 2022-2023
TLC students stand with Lead Teacher Bryan Heckler in front of PC's Bulpitt Auditorium
Donna Gammage and Bryan Heckler at the Diversity Action Council Award Ceremony in 2023 where they accepted their award
TLC students Ashley, Karina, and Karina continue their friendship in the TLC program and experience college life

En Español. Donna Gammage and Bryan Heckler are the fairy godparents many of us wished for as teenagers. Except they don't have a magic wand or indulge in fantasy. Their work as Job Developer and Lead Teacher in the Transitioning Learners to College (TLC) at Phoenix College (PC) is rooted in reality. Donna and Bryan provide special education students the needed life skills to become adults and the wrap-around support services for the college experience. “At PC, students receive support from disability resources,” Bryan explains, “but we connect TLC students to services that support their learning and help them transition to Phoenix College, or whatever's next for them.”

Encouragement to Give College a Try

Justin came to TLC because his brothers and sisters went to college, so he thought he should do the same thing. "TLC teaches me how to take responsibility in college, pay my taxes, fill out my FAFSA, get a job in college and outside of college," he said. "If there wasn't the TLC program, I wouldn't understand college or my courses. TLC is helping me grow my mind."  Hunter wasn't sure how he would afford college, but a counselor at Metro Tech High School approached him about TLC as a way of attending college free for the first year. "We're adults," Hunter says, "but still kind of children, so my first day was nerve-wracking, entering a new place, meeting new people, new everything." But he's learning to adapt to new situations and plans to focus on finding a job. "I need to make my own money to help me provide for myself and my family in a pinch."

TLC student Bryan, who came to PC from Alhambra High School, said, "One of the great things about this program is I get to go somewhere new: the library (where I go a lot), the fitness center to work out, the café to eat and the student union to hang out." Bryan says TLC makes him think about what he wants to do with his life. "I also want to learn how to be an adult and how to communicate because I'm not one to talk a lot. After the TLC program, I want to do more of this communicating," he said.

Life Skills, Community Resrouces, and Wrap-around Support 

While the students travel across campus for classes, including First Year Experience, PE, and Communications, they have a homeroom in the E building where Donna and Bryan offer life skills like finding and furnishing an apartment in Phoenix on a budget. "Then, we give them a $200 budget for groceries for two weeks and ask them to make a list of meals," says Bryan Heckler, Lead Teacher.  “Some students don’t know how to buy groceries because they’ve never done it,” adds Donna.  A self-described helicopter mom to a son with a disability, Donna admits, "We tend to want to overprotect.  As parents, we often feel like we've gone to high school and college with our kids." Which is why this program is so valuable for students and parents.

Donna, as Job Developer, sets up workshops with outside agencies like Ability 360 and Vocational Rehab. Workshops cover pre-employment strategies like navigating a job with a disability, dealing with different social situations and how to advocate for yourself when you have a disability, such as seeking out a job coach or job site support.  "A lot of people with disabilities don't know they have access to Voc Rehab for the rest of their lives," says Donna. Voc Rehab paid for her son's education at Phoenix College, South Mountain Community College and ASU, including his dorm, tuition, and books. "The government helps people with disabilities be successful. With access to Voc Rehab and other community resources, we give TLC students a full circle of protection." 

TLC History and DAC Award

TLC began 30 years ago by providing Phoenix Union High School District (PXU) special education students with adaptive physical education in PC's Fitness Center, but in 2016, TLC became a comprehensive program, with students being referred to the program by PXU high school counselors. In addition to the required classes, “they might take additional courses, depending on where they are in their academic career, " Bryan says. "We don't want to overwhelm students.” If a student is interested in becoming a nurse, they might take a health science or nursing prereq course. The goal is to familiarize students with college classes and campus support services like the Learning Commons, which offers tutoring, a writing center, and learning strategies.

Earlier this year, Donna and Bryan were honored with a 2023 Diversity Advisory Council (DAC) Award of Excellence for their work with TLC. Donna describes their role as both cheerleader and challenger. "If one of our students can test out of English 101 and 102, they're college material, but if they don't have a cheerleader, they're not going to go," Donna says. "One of our students can't talk socially, but he is a great writer, and his presentations are amazing. Our students need to know they are brilliant." Donna stays in touch with the TLC alumni to see how they are faring after the program. Some students remain at PC to pursue a degree; others attend trade schools. Some find a job and start work.

Gabriel noted Mr. Heckler and Ms. Gammage, as they are known to students, offer tough love. "I have autism and know it will be hard, but TLC helps with strategies," he said. “They treat us like adults.” Ashley, who didn't know about community college and came to TLC to see how it was different from high school, says it's a whole other world of responsibilities. While she admitted Mr. Heckler and Ms. Gamage could be strict about attendance and being on time, she also knows they "want the best for us."  While Harry Potter had Hogwarts School of Wizardry, PXU special education students have Phoenix College and the amazing resources provided by Donna, Bryan, and TLC to make the transition from child to adult, highschool to college, less fantasy and more reality.  

Congrats to Bryan and Donna on this well-deserved Diversity Action Council Award! 

PXU students and parents interested in applying for the TLC program are encouraged to reach out to Bryan or Donna via TLC’s’s webpage.