By St Vrain Valley School District
Erie High School’s Tigers Together program, started by special education teachers Elizabeth Goodrich and Gaynelle Tuck, launched this fall, pairing students with disabilities with general education upper-class peer mentors.
The new program does not supplant existing special education services, and was borne of a desire to make the school more inclusive for students with disabilities.
“We talked about kids with higher needs having fewer true friends. A lot of times they might eat alone for lunch. We said, ‘What can we do’? We want to let them have true friends in their high school experience,” Tuck said.
“Our peers have been really branching out and helping our students maybe learn, how do you ask someone to have lunch with you? Or maybe we could get together this weekend and hang out? Just to have a stronger friendship base,” she said.
By all accounts, however, it is not just students with disabilities who are benefiting from Tigers Together.
“Peer mentors realize that students with disabilities are kids just like they are – it changes from being this good thing that we are doing by giving of ourselves, into being about the relationship itself,” Goodrich said.
While students with disabilities may have multiple peer mentors in a semester, the mentors, who receive an elective credit for their involvement, are paired with just one student, in one course, at a time.
Following an application and interview in the spring, junior Olivia Setin mentored a student with Down syndrome this fall.
“At first it was hard for her to make friends, to partner-up, to be in groups in PE class,” she said. “I helped her make friends. Then we set goals, worked on motor skills and understanding sports.
“It was really nice being able to understand her world better,” Setin said.
Principal Matt Buchler is receiving consistent reports from parents and teachers that Tigers Together is changing lives.
Just last week, a student in the program became very anxious when called to the principal’s office for a certificate of achievement. The peer mentor, he said, quickly soothed the student by helping her understand the award.
“It takes some time to build that relationship, but once they have that rapport, they are like a big brother or sister to them,” he said.
“Gaynelle Tuck and Liz Goodrich are outstanding teachers and that is the reason why it is so successful. You have to have great teachers like those two to make a program work really well. They put in a ton of work and hours, have gone way above and beyond what they need to do as teachers. It just shows their passion for kids,” Buchler said.