By Tara Cavanaugh
Gamal has a distinct swagger as he walks through Forsythe Middle School’s hallways.
Some might say that swagger is the uneven gait that comes from his disability. But ask anyone at Forsythe, and they’ll tell you that his swagger comes from confidence.
Gamal is a special education student, and he’s one of the most popular kids in the school. His popularity is likely due to the school’s adaptive physical education class, which pairs special needs students with general education “buddies,” sparking friendships and understanding between the two student populations.
Gym teacher Kelli Bert helped found the program ten years ago. “It’s so popular now that there are more kids who want to take it it than there is room,” she said.
The class is already large, with 35 students. That’s because twice as many general eduction students take the class as special needs students. The large class size ensures that the special needs students get plenty of attention.
“The students give more effort with their friends than they will with an adult,” Bert said. “They’re just like any other kid.”
The special needs students love having the attention of their buddies during gym, “but I think the peer mentors get as much, if not more, out of it than even the kids that they’re working with,” Bert added. “After this class, a lot of the kids say they want to go into special education or occupational therapy, something where they’re working with people with disabilities.”
The buddies also take a class once a week with Bert, where they keep journals and learn about different disabilities. Bert gets permission from parents to discuss students’ disabilities with the buddies. “So we can learn what these disabilities look like,” she said. “It’s easy to see a child in a wheelchair and know he has a disability. Whereas autism, that’s different.”
“I ask them if their opinion of kids with disabilities changed since being a peer mentor,” Bert said. “They usually say: Yes, they’re just like us. They just need more help sometimes.”
In the hallways and out in public on field trips, Bert sees her peer mentors take care of special needs students. “They’re very protective of them,” she said.
The relationships between buddies and special needs students extends outside gym class. Over spring break, a group of buddies went to a student’s birthday party at the mall. And every day during lunch, many peer mentors chose to eat with their buddies.
When the peer mentor gym class began a decade ago, Bert said, it was the first of its kind in the entire district. A Forsythe student who went on to Pioneer started a similar class that still exists today. Some elementary schools, such as Haisley, Wines and Eberwhite, have programs in place for students to work with special needs students now too.
Bert credits the elementary programs for making her peer mentors prepared. While a few students need to adjust to being mentors, most come into her class comfortable working with the special needs students. “Every year, the peer mentors get better and better,” she said. “If that’s possible!”
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