Editor’s Note: On Wednesday, I shared a blog post from Teri Dary about the importance of involving youth in the process of creating inclusive schools. Today I received an essay from Samantha McLeod that almost perfectly exemplifies what Teri talked about – youth need to be involved because they have the power to change school climate. Samantha is a member of the National Youth Activation Committee and a student at the University of Montana. Below she shares her experience of working with other students to turn their High School into a place of acceptance and inclusion.
I went to a high school where “inclusion” was not a norm until my senior year. As a freshman, I never saw the students enrolled in “special education” classes. I never understood why or even where they were but I also never ventured out to find those answers.
Midway through my sophomore year, I started volunteering as a unified partner for our local Special Olympics Ski team and these questions became more prominent in my mind. I learned that those in the special education program were kept in a completely separate part of the building and were not allowed to participate in many school functions.
A few months after I began volunteering with Special Olympics, a few of the wrestlers at my high school started a petition asking for one of the special education students, Nick, to join their wrestling team. There were so many people in support of this idea that our district couldn’t say no and that year he was able to join the team! This was the start of a movement in my class.
During my junior year my school started including the special education kids in inclusive classes. These were basic elective classes that they would attend with the rest of the student body. After these classes began, I started to see our whole school atmosphere shift. People went from being afraid of those students, to being open and warm with them, dare I even say, friends. Everyone that was touched by this change was changed themselves.
Then it was time for the spotlight. My senior year, my friend Jade, who was one of the captains of the football and basketball teams, and I decided we were going to leave a mark on our school. Jade started the ‘Honorary Co-captain’s Program’, which gave students with an intellectual disability the chance to be a part of our school sports teams. Every home game (both football and basketball), the team would choose a student at our high school who was in the special education program to be a co-captain. This co-captain would walk on to the court or field with the other captains and shake the other team’s hands and get to call the coin toss. They got to sit on the bench with the team during the game and were given a signed ball or jersey from the team and got to take pictures with all of them. It was truly the most amazing thing to watch. It’s something those kids will remember for the rest of their lives.
My way of making a difference had to do with sports as well. While Jade was including students into our school sports I wanted to honor those students and athletes for their accomplishments off the playing field. With help from a committee of teachers, school board representatives, community members, and coaches, I developed a program that allowed students who competed in Special Olympics to earn a Varsity Letter/letterman jacket for our school. After about 8 months of developing guidelines and requirements for this program it was approved. About one year later, I received a call telling me that the first recipient of the letter would be Tanealya, who had been my partner in skiing and best friend for years. The year after I graduated, Mike, a Special Olympics athlete and special education student, was voted by the student body to be homecoming king.
If that doesn’t shout inclusion I don’t know what does.