For the life of me, I cannot remember having a significant interaction in middle school with my peers who had disabilities. I'm not a particularly forgetful person; I have many memories from my small town middle school in Iowa—some good ones, some bad ones, a lot of awkward ones. But it strikes me that I cannot remember a single, meaningful interaction with a student who was receiving special education services.
I remember seeing these students in the lunchroom, in the hallways, occasionally in my own classroom accompanied by a teacher's aide. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), it was their right to be integrated into the school system. However, after getting a job with Special Olympics Minnesota, I now know there is a huge difference between integration and inclusion. I never studied with my peers who had disabilities. I never played sports with them. I never ate lunch with them. They were integrated into our school. They were not included.
Last spring, I visited South View Middle School in Edina, Minnesota, one of the most inclusive schools in the state. After witnessing their inclusive culture, it made my heart ache for what could have been my own middle school experience and, more importantly, the experience of my peers with disabilities.
Seeking to strengthen a culture of inclusion in their school, South View Middle School implemented "Peer Insights," a program that pairs students with and without intellectual disabilities to create authentic, lifelong friendships through unique experiences. "When we began, we couldn't imagine what it would grow to become. We just knew we wanted to do something that would grow the culture we were seeking to strengthen," said Tami Jo Cook, dean of students at South View and Minnesota Middle School Association Board of Directors member. In their first year implementing the program, 10 students with and without disabilities participated. This year, 120 students are involved. Tami Jo reflected, "Peer Insights wouldn't be what it is today without the help of Special Olympics Minnesota."
In 2015, Special Olympics Minnesota adopted the nationwide Unified Champion Schools program as a core of its mission. The Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program is aimed at promoting social inclusion and system-wide change through intentionally planned and implemented activities. With sports as the foundation, the three-component model offers a unique combination of effective activities that equip young people with tools and training to create athletic, social, and school climates of acceptance. These are school climates where students of all abilities feel welcome and are routinely included in, and feel a part of, all activities, opportunities, and functions a school has to offer. Unified Schools Manager Nick Cedergren said, "This student driven and student led movement is changing a generation to expect inclusion in their everyday life."
After learning about this new inclusive opportunity, South View Middle School partnered with Special Olympics Minnesota to bolster their "Peer Insights" program and further grow a culture of inclusivity. South View Middle School was the first middle school in Minnesota to reach Unified Champion School status and continues to be a leader in the Unified movement statewide promoting inclusion. A Unified Champion School is one that implements the three components of the Unified Champion School program: Unified Sports, Inclusive Youth Leadership and Whole School Engagement.
"The Unified model is exceptional because the characteristics endure," said South View's principal Tim Anderson. "It is not dependent on a single administrator, teacher, or student, and it affects the very culture of the school. Because of this, all stakeholders are pleased." According to Tim, the currency of education is "how does this make a difference?" When Mr. Anderson considers a new program for his school, he calculates how it will impact his students. "A program that changes the culture positively does the work for you," said Tim, "The Unified movement has a myriad of benefits. I want to spend my time on programs like that."
Jennie Schaefer is a special education teacher and a committed advocate of the Unified movement and Peer Insights. "This is my favorite part of my job because it's the most meaningful to my students," said Jennie. "I get to see them truly be a part of the school community and recognized and seen as peers."
Karlee, one of Jennie's students, needed two staff members with her at all times when she started at South View. Because of the growth she has experienced in this program, she can now go to her classes with only her Peer Insight partner. "I'm so glad the school is pushing for a more inclusive environment," Ms. Schaefer said. "People in our community want to send their kids to South View specifically because of this program."
It was obvious to me while visiting the school that Peer Insights is the cool thing to do. And it seems like that reputation has been around since its inception. "My older brother was in Peer Insights, and he told me it was a really, really good experience, so I decided to do it, too," said Katherine, a seventh grader and member of Peer Insights. "The club is tons of fun, and the other students are so fun to work with. I work with my peers in reading class so I help them with writing and literacy."
The transformation students experience at South View is noticeable. When asked what she hopes for her students once they graduate, Dean of Students Tami Jo said, "More than anything, I hope our students leave with compassion and empathy. If there is someone who needs help, I hope it is our students who are the ones to offer that help." And, it seems to be working. Tami Jo often hears from the local high school: "We can tell which students come from South View."
At a time when teachers are doing more than ever, how is taking on a new program like Unified Champion Schools feasible? South View has some suggestions. "Let the students do the work," Tami Jo urged. "The Unified Movement is not a program; it's a part of the culture. In our experience, the students want this movement to happen. Plus, Special Olympics is there to help. They have your back."
Jennie agrees, "Start with one small step and go from there. The students take charge and grow it into a movement." Anyone interested in bringing the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program to their school can contact their state's Special Olympics office.
When I was in middle school, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools and programs like Peer Insights did not exist. There was integration, but we were so far from reaching true inclusion. Though a part of me mourns the fact that my peers never got to experience a culture of inclusivity like this, I am so inspired by where schools today are headed.
I'm excited to see students being taught to be empathetic of their peers who are different from them. I'm in awe of the genuine relationships being built between students with and without disabilities. And, I'm proud that students and educators alike are taking the lead in this inclusion revolution.
To bring the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program to your school, contact your state's Special Olympics office.
Katie Howlett is the marketing and communications specialist at Special Olympics Minnesota.
Nick Cedergren is the Unified schools manager at Special Olympics Minnesota and can answer your questions about the Unified movement.
All photos provided by author.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2019.