CAA: An Innovative Lifelong Educational Experience

College of Adaptive Arts provides an equitable, lifelong collegiate experience to adults with special needs who historically have not had access. Founded in 2009 with 12 students in 1 musical theatre class, CAA has grown operationally 1608% to serving consistently 128 adults in 1-hour distinct adaptive college classes within 10 Schools of Instruction: Art, Business, Communications, Dance, Health & Wellness, Library Arts, Music, Science & Technology, Theatre, and TV/Film.

The premise is that any adult who wants to continue learning, growing, and becoming the best versions of themselves has a safe and engaging space to do so. Adults only sign up for classes that they have an interest in. There are no tests, grades or papers, and homework assignments are always optional. Adults ages 18+ are welcome to enroll who are still learning to read, write, and even to speak. Social cognitive skill-building happens in each class due to the nature of the ARTS Curriculum – allowing adults to Access new content, Respond to new concepts, Transfer to an activity/practice, and to Sustain new skills in long-term memory by individual sharing & showcasing.

In March of 2020 when the Shelter in Place orders in Santa Clara County were put into effect, CAA was well-poised to take courses fully online. They had been developing and utilizing distance learning thanks to an infrastructure build-out grant from Adobe Foundation in 2016. CAA was able to fully embrace Zoom and take all 58 distinct courses online that last week of the Winter Quarter. Spring Quarter brought more adults hungry to continue learning, and the Summer Quarter which began July 6 has enrolled even more adults and expanded online course offerings to over 70 distinct classes each week.

CAA’s vision is to become as widespread and accessible in education that Special Olympics so effectively provides with sports. To this end, CAA has entered into its first historic partnership with West Valley College, whose Board of Trustees voted unanimously in July of 2020 to allow CAA to use portable space to continue the program while becoming a work-study/living lab/leadership training model for community college students. CAA believes this model of expanded college education will be able to fit on any and every campus of higher learning one day.

CAA Student Ambassadors are ready to give Zoom tours to anyone who would like to learn more about this innovative educational model of lifelong learning.

Dr. Pamela Lindsay: Univ of Phoenix Blog

College of Adaptive Arts proudly shares University of Phoenix’s latest Blog Post on Dr. Pamela Lindsay, Ed.D/CI, Co-Founder & Dean of Instruction:

Alum launches College of Adaptive Arts to provide equitable education experience for adults with special needs

Caregiver holding a senior woman's hands

A George Bernard Shaw quote was a catalyst to something life-changing for Dr. Pamela Lindsay. It reads, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” She includes it in her email signature as a reminder of the important work she is doing to educate adults with special needs.

In 2009, she helped launch the nonprofit College of the Adaptive Arts (CAA) in San Jose[1] to provide a college option for adults with disabling conditions who have aged out of traditional educational support.

Today, CAA has more than 100 students aged 18 and up taking more than 40 course offerings each quarter among nine schools of instruction.[2] CAA degrees are nontransferable and do not prepare students for job placement or a vocation. Instead, the curriculum is about feeding their curiosity and providing each individual with creative ways to participate individually, in groups and as leaders to show mastery of a concept.

Dr. Lindsay believes everyone deserves an education and CAA was designed to give those without traditional pathways access to a college experience.

“Our students have a hunger for learning, and they want to keep learning more. So, we give them that platform to explore what is interesting to them,” Said Dr. Lindsay, who earned a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, leadership in special education at UOPX. “For our students, we must engage them to lock what they are learning into their memory. It’s the same key cognitive development concepts needed in all areas of life.”

The idea for CAA was set in motion over a decade ago, when Dr. Lindsay and co-founder DeAnna Pursai, participated in a theater and choir fundraiser for students with disabilities. Many of the students who performed that night were “aging out” of the supportive programs, as state-sponsored support for children with special needs lasts through age 22. After that, educational opportunities are limited to those who can meet a college’s admissions standards without modification.

Dr. Lindsay and Pursai reached out to families to see if they might have adults with disabilities interested in classes in the arts. At first, a handful of special needs students interested in the arts joined music classes hosted in Dr. Lindsay’s home. From there, classes grew into a space for adults with disabilities to learn to live a full and empowered life as contributing members of the community through an arts-focused education.

They found they had the support and a solid base of students and families interested in participating. They needed a plan to turn their classes into a college.

Despite both having a passion for special education, the duo decided to take a divide-and-conquer approach to build CAA.[3][4] Pursai took on the role of executive director and pursued training to learn more about finance, business building and navigating funding sources. As dean of instruction for the College, Dr. Lindsay searched for a doctoral program to create the academic infrastructure for CAA.

She quickly learned that developing a curriculum that worked for these students would be difficult. She believed that it couldn’t be modeled after existing curriculum. She felt that it needed to be built from the ground up and focused on leadership and applied learning. Finding the right terminal degree to meet her needs was a challenge.

She discovered University of Phoenix’s doctoral program, with an educational framework built around the Scholar, Practitioner, Leader (SPL) model. The model focuses on lifelong-learning, leadership and positively impacting communities and workplaces.[1]

Through each course of her doctorate, Dr. Lindsay created materials and brought to life the vision she had for CAA’s curriculum. The result was ARTS, a curriculum model that builds on four key cognitive-developmental concepts, modeled after SPL. ARTS stands for: Accessing concepts, Responding to concepts, Transferring to independent understanding, and Sharing through leadership.

The University’s SPL model is designed to allow doctoral candidates to connect theory, learning and practice within an individual’s field so that thought leaders become producers of change.[2] Dr. Lindsay incorporated this into her curriculum focused on leadership and application. Programs are concentrated on the arts and each student’s learning is based on mastery of concepts and sharing it as a leader.

Pursai said she feels blessed to have Pam at the helm of curriculum and instruction for CAA.

“Pam is a true pioneer in her field. She established a curricular model and helped establish new procedures and processes to enable workflow to be streamlined, professional and easy to access,” she said. “Pam is so steadfastly committed to giving adults with intellectual disabilities a safe and engaging educational space to continue learning, growing and becoming the best versions of themselves.”

At CAA, meaningful participation in a course and demonstrating growth based on the ARTS model earns them credit. Students have the opportunity to earn a non-transferrable undergraduate degree when they complete 60 credits and move on to a 120-credit non-transferrable graduate degree and a 240-credit non-transferrable post-graduate degree.[3]

Dr. Lindsay is excited about what the future holds for CAA and its students. In addition to embracing the George Bernard Shaw quote, she and Pursai also march forward with the mantra “once a learner, always a learner,” and continue to seek out connections and networks of opportunity to grow the college.

“We serve one of the few groups not able to access education in an equitable way,” she said. “And we are finding more ways to do that.”

[1] http://www.collegeofadaptivearts.org/about/

[2] http://www.collegeofadaptivearts.org/about/

[3] https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-pamela-lindsay-9001602b/

[4] https://www.linkedin.com/in/deannapursaicaa/

Reflections from the School of Art Director :)

It was just expected years ago that I go to art college. I painted and drew on anything that didn’t move, so when I began my college career at the Academy of Art University is San Francisco, I dreamed my painting future would be like that of Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, or Mark Rothko without their unexpected endings. Not so.

During my last semester of college, I visited Creativity Explored in SF. The variety of artwork created by adult artists with developmental and hidden disabilities inside this large and colorful studio was breathtaking! These accomplished artists’ paintings, drawings and sculptures were so pure and moving. I spent some time drawing with a woman who was nonverbal, but she spoke loudly. Her colorful drawings, expressive line-work, and beaming smile said everything she could not. I left school that day, changed in my ideas about who else can create art, but more importantly, how much these artists touched my heart.

Jump forward 9 years and through divine intervention and an amazing friend, I met two passionate and courageous women who were starting a college in San Jose for adults with differing abilities. They needed an art instructor and an art department and wanted to know if I was interested. To say I was excited couldn’t nearly describe how I felt. I experienced that heartwarming sensation I felt all those years ago and I knew that this was my tribe.

Now as we celebrate our 10th Anniversary as a college for adult individuals with differing abilities, I can’t help but reflect over CAA’s monumental growth. We’ve nurtured countless classes in the arts, health and wellness, communications and more in many locations. Each move, bringing new experiences to a population of individuals who might not ever have had the opportunity to be creative and express themselves in art forms such as dance, music, or art. For four years, our fearless professors set up classes out of the trunks of their cars, packed them up to travel to and from generous businesses with a little bit of space and a shared belief in our vision for the college which allowed us to grow.

Established colleges around the country for the most part have offered typical adults opportunities in the arts for decades, becoming artists (like myself), actors, writers and entertainers who influence our culture, enrich our lives and fill up social media. But those colleges must have begun from humble beginnings… much like College of Adaptive Arts. Right?

When I see CAA students eyes light up at a new song they will learn or a non-verbal student try their hardest to record a sound for a clay animation voice over, I can’t help but feel that these novel experiences are reaching the hearts and minds of our students just like today’s typical college learners.

Thank you to the families for recognizing that our adults too have dreams of becoming future creatives that make up and contribute to society. To think that only decades ago, people with developmental differences, physical challenges and the like were not only thought as burdens, but also hidden away from society is so heartbreaking. CAA students have so much to offer and share with the world in ways that might look different from typical college students and adults, but still just as valuable and unique.

Each week, I get the privilege to bask in CAA students unconfined joy, witness unconditional friendships, and unbridled eagerness to try and try again as all lessons we can learn from. And most importantly, we all need each other to do this.

All of our college communities deserve seasons to be learners, teachers, mentors and friends.

Recently, I had the unexpected and exciting chance to go back to Creativity Explored and talk about art and autism. I could never have done this if I hadn’t experienced all of these roles just because of one chance opportunity over 16 years ago in a college class which completely changed my life’s purpose, career, and my heart.

Nicole:)

Director, School of Art
College of Adaptive Arts

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