A Story of Transformation

Being a part of Project UNIFY, I get to read a lot of stories about Special Olympics impacting students and school communities across the U.S. I constantly hear great stories of success where students with intellectual disabilities are respected and treated as equals in their school. Sadly, I also read things that illustrate how much work we still have to do. But on a Friday afternoon, I want to share one story of transformation that gives me hope that change can, and will, happen.

Be inspired by Elementary student Kayla Davis and her journey to understanding:

Kayla (right) with partner Maron

“When I was first asked if I wanted to help the Special Education kids with Physical Education last year, my answer was a resounding no my reasons being that I was fearful and had no experience with Special Ed kids. They were scary, and gross. Why would I want to help them? But the more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself to try it, just once. My teacher and my parents backed me up completely, but still I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it because I felt uncomfortable and scared. I knew nothing about Special Ed in general and had planned on never interacting with the kids. I had what you could call the “public opinion.” But as I soon found out, being a PE helper was very different than I thought.

The moment I walked into the gym, I knew it was nothing like I had expected. I had thought they would have trouble walking, let alone doing the things we, the 5th and 6th graders were doing. They played volleyball, soccer, basketball, and everything else we learned. I was entirely surprised. I soon learned their names; Jenna, Maron, Jodie, Jacob, Andy, and Riley. This year we have 3 new kids too. I was paired up with Jenna, a spirited kindergartener. It was fun going there every Tuesday and Thursday. I grew to look forward to it, treasuring the half-hour I had to spend with these students. My favorite part was watching the improvements while they were learning. I got my buddy from just looking at the basketball, to pushing it upward!

My view of the Special Ed kids changed greatly. They weren’t a different race; they were normal people with a special perk. One of the things that changed my perception was interacting with them. They laughed, cried, and loved, just like us. As I continue working with them this year, (this year my partner is Maron), I continue to enjoy it, more than ever because I have learned more about how to understand them. In addition to PE helpers, our school has recently formed a Partners Club, working with Special Olympics and Project Unify. I am proud to say that my whole class is involved in this amazing opportunity. I hope that if you ever have an amazing opportunity that you try it, just once.”
– Kayla Davis, Boise, Idaho

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Is Your School Climate Inclusive? The Students Know!

Today we’re featuring a guest post from Teri Dary on school climate and inclusion. Teri has a wealth of experience as an educator and currently co-chairs SEANet Executive Board and works as the Service-Learning Consultant at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about making your school climate inclusive of all students, then you’ll definitely want to read on.   

Creating an inclusive school climate is important work. Conducting this work in the context of engaging youth in developing a shared vision is even more powerful. While adults can be effective in creating the conditions for an inclusive school, it is the youth who can bring those conditions to life. The tendency in our adult-centered world is to identify an issue we would like to address and then devise solutions we believe will help to alleviate the problem. The piece we miss is to partner with youth in the process.

Let’s take the issue of schools that are less inclusive than we would like them to be. If we turn only to the adults around us in analyzing and addressing these concerns, we might come up with solutions like changing lunch or class schedules, proving more opportunities for diverse students to interact, and teaching lessons on tolerance and acceptance.

But who is it that really knows the day-to-day realities of living and learning in the school? Who knows what it is like to walk down the halls and not know the names of your classmates because you don’t have classmates, clubs, or even friends in common? The only people in the school who really know how the social and academic worlds collide, who know how that impacts relationships, and who know what it feels like to be part of that culture are the students. If we are to really address the issues around creating an inclusive school climate, we absolutely need to meaningfully engage our youth in identifying, defining, and solving the challenges we face.

So what solutions might youth come up with that are any different than those adults have already thought of? My conversations with youth on this topic have opened my eyes to some pretty intriguing solutions. One student talked to me about feeling frustrated because he never has the opportunity to interact with students with intellectual disabilities because he takes all higher level classes. He wondered why we can’t have inclusive clubs in our schools, including such groups as Student Council and National Honor Society. Another asked why special education classrooms are located in the far corners of our schools, and why we can’t ensure that there are natural opportunities for students to interact between and within classes?

If we are to address inclusive school climate effectively, let’s engage youth in meaningful ways in the process. Adults don’t need to be the front of all knowledge and problem solvers of all that needs to be solved. Real change will happen when we partner with the amazing youth around us, give them the freedom to innovate and create, providing them with the skills, knowledge, and support they need to be successful along the way.