Jeff Ross now a professor emeritus, but he is just moving to a new project for young adults with autism

The father of Taft College’s internationally renowned program that trains young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live independently is calling it quits.

Well, not quite.

Jeffrey Ross, who took the college’s Transition to Independent Living (TIL) program from its inception in 1995 to national and international prominence, is retiring.

He was awarded the rank of professor emeritus at Taft College's 88th commencement on Friday

After watching TIL’s 17th graduating class take a bow next month, he will move to Arizona to become executive director of a new venture by the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center to create a residential training program for young adults with autism.

“They are a nationally known autism group,” he said. “I’ll be partnering with them to build a residential facility in Phoenix. It will actually be quite similar to TIL with students living on campus the first year and then moving into apartments.”

Unlike the TIL program, which relocates its sophomores into homes and apartments scattered throughout town, the Arizona students will live in an apartment complex run by the Foundation for Senior Living.

“It will provide affordable living for them, and the experience they gain interacting with senior citizens is going to be invaluable,” he said.

College connections

The new program Ross will head up also will be integrated with medical resources at Arizona State University’s medical resources and the academic program at Phoenix Community College.

A key component will be linked to Taft College.

“We are going to work with the TIL program to provide teacher training on the Taft College campus,” he said. “TIL is still a national leader for post-secondary education programs.”

Instructors in the new Arizona program will get some of their training in Taft.

“There is such a need for residential programs for kids with autism,” he said. “When that yellow bus quits coming (at the end of high school), what happens then?”

TIL has been seeing growing numbers of incoming students with autism.

“When we started we had no autistic students. Now 70 percent of our students are somewhere on the autism spectrum.”

Ross said TIL graduates don’t just take with them a certificate in independent living “but a certificate in salable skills. That’s been the change, and it’s a great change.”

Getting started

Ross was a fresh face just out of college when he came to TC in 1976 as an adjunct professor assigned to create educational opportunities for clients at ARC, moving to full-time status on campus two years later, working with students who had learning or developmental disabilities.

Two years later he was named director of disabled student services.

Kathy Evarts worked in the program and wondered if a residential program might have potential.

“Then in 1994 when the college got rid of football it presented some opportunities to have a residential component since dorm space would be opening up,” he said.

Starting with 14 students, the program has grown to 52 students in the new state-funded Center for Independent Living on the north fringe of the campus.

“We have served over 250 students, we’ve created a high tech center and adaptive technologies. What better environment to make those changes than on a community college campus.”

Ross and then TC Supt./Pres. Willy Duncan were instrumental in steering a move to secure federal funding so other community colleges and universities could start TIL-type programs.

Will miss TC

Ross also was active in other aspects of the campus, serving as president of both faculty groups – the Academic Senate and the Faculty Association.

“One of the things I’m really proud of is helping to implement interest-based bargaining on campus,” he said.

That style of bargaining takes the rancor and drama out of contract negotiations. He said he’s used the technique with TIL staff to identify and solve problems.

“Taft College has been great to me,” Ross said. “My whole professional career has been at TC. Going to work every day has always been a fun, exciting experience.

“I’m really going to miss the people, and I’ll miss interacting with the TIL students.”

Those people are going to miss Ross too.