It benefits all students when they have opportunities to learn, grow, and interact with each other,” says Stephanie Erbland, Special Education Teacher at Niwot Elementary, home to one of the district’s center-based autism programs. Since she began teaching at Niwot Elementary, Erbland’s goal has been to increase integration between the students enrolled in the center-based autism program and those in the general education courses. Through her vision and leadership, her students have increasingly engaged within the larger school community during lunch time, art, music, PE, and school assemblies.
At the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, the school enacted the Peer Buddy program for all students in the autism based-center program. Through the program, students enrolled in general education classes join Erbland’s class for a portion of the learning day. It was Erbland’s third grade son, Jackson, who encouraged her to start the program because he had shown a strong interest in engaging with her students.
The students collaborate to improve communication skills and work on design challenges in the school’s Discovery Lab, covering a range of topics related to 21st-century skills including airplane simulators, robotics, and design structures. Erbland shares that her students love interacting with the general education students saying, “When they are going to specials or when their Peer Buddies come in the classroom, their faces brighten. They are more engaged with whatever it is we are doing. It is more fun to be doing the activity alongside another friend and learning something together.”
The participation interest of the general education students has been overwhelming with over 45 students currently serving as a Peer Buddy. Erbland says that through the program, students have become more empathetic and compassionate. The Peer Buddies seek to include Erbland’s students in more activities and want to learn more about special needs and autism. When the school participated in putting their handprints on the Mwebaza shipping container classroom, students scanned the containers to make sure the hands of their friends in the special needs program were also present. Third grade Peer Buddy, Giuliana Batmazian says the program is important “because they can learn just like us and every day they improve something new and it makes me proud.”
Across St. Vrain Valley Schools, we are providing opportunities for all students to have an authentic school experience supported by our strong communities. High school athletics is one of the most impactful aspects of a student’s high school journey. St. Vrain has expanded sport offerings to include the Unified Sports League, a program where student athletes with special needs are partnered with general education students who coach and encourage them through their chosen sport of football, basketball, and/or soccer.
The Unified Sports programming has also bridged the gap between students enrolled in special needs courses and those in traditional courses. Michelle and Eric Peterson, two engineers – chemical and mechanical respectively – have lived in the Mead community since 2008 and have witnessed this inclusive culture firsthand with their son, Noah.
When Noah was in eighth grade, the Peterson’s were worried about his transition to high school and Mead High teacher, Amber Vanzant, recommended that he participate in Unified Sports. This decision not only made Noah’s transition to high school more successful, it dramatically changed his life. Michelle shares, “The first time he stood on the basketball court, he stood there and watched the clock;” Now three years into the program, “he watches the clock because he wants to score.” Noah’s athletic, academic, and social abilities have soared and his parent’s attribute this to the community that has been cultivated through Unified Sports at Mead High. His talent for basketball has transformed him into a public figure within the community, where the Peterson’s are constantly being stopped when they are out and about together.
The Peterson’s reflect on the positive environment that Unified Sports has created saying, “the Unified Athletes cheer for both sides.” When Noah sees an opponent score a touchdown in football, he is just as happy for his opponent as he is for himself. Whether it’s on the field or the court, the stadiums are filled with community support of all different backgrounds, with the school band and cheerleaders setting the tone for the crowd.
Noah’s partner in Unified Sports, Skyler Sheffer, has equally grown through the program. According to Skyler, “Unified Sports has given me a chance to help other people and make more friends. I am now not quick to judge because people might have a hard time doing something that they do not want to tell other people about. It has given me the confidence to be more of a leader and makes me more aware of my surroundings and how I act around people.” The Unified Sports program has been so successful in creating positive school culture that middle schools across the district are adopting their own programs and a Unified music program is currently being developed.
“Across St. Vrain Valley Schools, we prioritize the success of all students,” shares Laura Hess, Executive Director of Special Education. “I am so proud to work alongside our students, parents, principals, teachers, paraprofessionals, and other staff who champion programs that are giving students with special needs opportunities to further engage with their school communities.” Through collaboration, we are shaping experiences and deepening our understanding of each other. In the wise words of third grader, Giuliana, “I can help people learn that everybody’s different and that’s okay.”