Prairie Ridge fifth graders Miles Anna and Drew Hershey didn’t know each other when the school year began but now they’re teaching each other basketball tricks and high-fiving in the halls between classes.
Miles and Drew are among the first students to participate in Prairie Ridge Elementary School’s Red Shirt Program, which launched in the fall.
The school is the first in the St. Vrain Valley to adopt the national unified sports program with the goal of connecting general education students with special education students.
“I love (Miles) because he is nice to me and he is a good friend and he keeps helping me and both of us are being a good sport to each other and being nice to each other,” said Drew.
About 12 special education students ages 8 and older and 23 general education fifth graders participated in the inaugural program proudly donning their red t-shirts like uniforms.
For five weeks in the winter, students practiced basketball and played scrimmages after school. The fifth grade “partners” assisted special education athletes teaching them how to dribble, providing instruction about the game and encouraging them on the court. Students returned in the spring for five weeks of soccer under the same model.
Michael Fullam, who teaches students with autism and coached the Red Shirt teams, brought the program to St. Vrain after having success at a Pennsylvania school where he previously taught.
Soccer practice was initially overwhelming for one of Fullam’s students who is very shy, he said. But the student kept trying and by the last practice “she was loving it,” he said.
Another of Fullam’s student developed enough confidence through the program that he was able to join a mainstream physical education class. “He realized he can participate and compete with other kids,” Fullam said.
Even students with physical limitations participated. One of Fullam’s student who has a seizure disorder wore a helmet during soccer practices for safety and the students embraced that leading him through practice to make sure he was steady on his feet. “He’s kicking the ball all over the field during soccer now,” he said.
Charlie Burrows, said Tuesdays are his favorite day of the week because that’s the day Red Shirt practices are held.
Fifth grade partner April Vargas said she liked playing with the students she didn’t know, like Charlie, who she described as “nice and funny and just himself.”
The program connects with the district’s P.E. and health curriculum and helps support the anti-bullying campaign, Fullam said. The program also met Individualized Education Plan goals for Fullam’s students such as, communication, social and emotional progress, and occupational and physical therapy needs.
Fullam hopes to help set up teams at other elementary schools across the district allowing students to compete against one another. He also is expanding next year’s program at Prairie Ridge to include flag football in the fall.
“There was a huge impact on everybody involved and it helped my students build confidence,” Fullam said. “We even had teachers and assistants stopping by to watch or pitch in after school. It really brought the community together here.”