FRA News Details

Heart to Heart: Preparing students for continued success through life’s transitions


The Heart to Heart program began in 2006 with the vision of providing a meaningful education to students with Down syndrome in a Christian community. There have been three graduates of the program who have all attended major universities for post-secondary transition programs. As the community has grown over the years and to better accommodate the needs of diverse learners, we developed plans to further prepare our learners for their needs in moving toward post-secondary education.


The Heart to Heart program has been providing opportunities, both academically and socially, for students with Down syndrome since 2006. It has arguably helped change the culture of the school, instilling empathy and changing perceptions of the typical FRA student and how they respond and relate to others.

Sixteen years ago, a family with a son with Down syndrome first proposed the idea of Heart to Heart in hopes of providing him with the same opportunities and experiences as their other children attending FRA. The goal of the program was to integrate the students with Down syndrome in a college preparatory, Christian community that was known for its academic rigor. FRA became one of the first independent schools in the area to create a space for students with intellectual disabilities.

The Heart to Heart program was initially established as a 1-to-1 student-to-teacher model where each student had access to a master's level special education teacher for all academic, social, and emotional learning. As post-secondary collegiate opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities have increased nationwide, the Heart to Heart team researched multiple models to determine how to shift the program to meet and exceed the requirements of top-tier collegiate transition programs across the country.


The shift from a one-to-one model to a service based model allows each Heart to Heart teacher to specialize in a specific content area in order to provide more intensive instruction in the areas of reading, math, and life skills. Students' schedules are created with their transition goals in mind and based on their ability level and access to content. Heart to Heart teachers provide ongoing training to classroom faculty members to better serve the students in their classroom, requiring less pull out from class. Heart to Heart teachers are able to focus more on intervention in reading, writing, math, and social skills.

The Heart to Heart teachers also work with divisional leaders and faculty members to ensure all school staff have the necessary tools to incorporate students with diverse needs into their classroom on a social, functional, and academic level. The Heart to Heart teachers use data from the intervention areas to make decisions on what skills each student needs to focus on developing. “The new model is far more comprehensive and better integrates our learning community by setting in motion processes that benefit all types of learners—not just our students with Down syndrome," eighth grade English teacher, Tricia Kriese said.

As students progress into middle and upper school, each student’s schedule is designed to fit their interests and needs. Schedules are created based on the students' adaptive abilities, personality, and goals for post-secondary education and career. Heart to Heart takes the individualized approach to look at each student and asks, ‘How can we best build a schedule for you that will enrich you and get you to where you want to go?’ Heart to Heart has made it a priority to make sure that each student in the program is meeting post-secondary requirements for transition programs.


Alongside each individualized schedule and approach, Heart to Heart introduced the Exceptional Learners program this school year. In order to make a bigger impact within our community, typically developing juniors and seniors can take an academic elective called Exceptional Learners which is a practicum-like class. Students are selected for the course through an application process and then assigned as a mentor to a middle school and upper school student in the Heart to Heart program. The student mentors are introduced to working in special education, and 70 percent of their time is dedicated to working directly with a student in the Heart to Heart program.

Mentor students utilize the remainder of their time to study content through the exceptional learners and psycho-education studies class. This class gives the mentor students real-world work experience in the field while providing the students in the Heart to Heart program a more authentic relationship with their peers. The mentor students support some academic goals but mainly focus on helping to develop peer-to-peer interaction and acceptance in the class setting.


This spring, the Heart to Heart program will pilot a work-based learning course where upper school students will have time dedicated to developing the required work skills and training for fields such as hospitality, maintenance, and food. The program is designed to grow with the student's individual needs, building each year as he or she progresses through the upper school. By junior or senior year, the goal is to have the student independently working in a similar field off campus with some of FRA’s partners. All these advancements make it such a special time to be a part of the FRA community. 

FRA would never be the same without the Heart to Heart program and the students, teachers, and mentors who have made the program what it is today. As the program continues to grow and advance, our community is strengthened as a result of hard work, compassion, and our school community for seeing them as they are—a student first.