Inclusion gym class leads to friendships, ‘promposals’

This school year, instead of enrolling in regular old gym class, Erika Brann, a senior at Shepard High School in Palos Heights, Ill., applied to be a mentor in the school’s Power Physical Education program.

She was interviewed and accepted and then paired with a junior, who is involved in the school’s special education program.

The two not only work together through activities such as kickball, baseball and calisthenics, they spend the class time chatting and bonding the way teens are known to do.

“You work one on one with someone who is in one of the special programs in our school,” Erika said.

Standing inside the Bo Jackson Elite Sports Dome in Lockport, Ill., where students enrolled in District 218’s Power PE program spent the day recently, hitting the batting cages, obstacle courses and soccer fields for boisterous games of dodge ball, Erika explained why she wanted to be in the program at Shepard.

“I wanted the chance to connect with one of the students who doesn’t really get the opportunity to really connect with gen-ed students. I felt making that connection was really important,” she said. “People always like to define someone by their abilities.”

But, she added, friendships are not based on abilities.

Since they began working together last fall, the two have become good friends, so good, in fact, that Erika recently asked him to prom.

She plans to wear red to the May 5 dance at Navy Pier.

Her date said he, too, “will get all dressed up.”

The “promposal” was one of four that took place during Shepard’s Special Olympics assembly March 10, Power PE teacher Ashley Lythberg said.

During the gathering, Erika held a larger-than-life head shot of the student and a poster that read, “It would be really, really great if you went to prom with me.”

Relying on Starbursts and Skittles to persuade, other students “popped” the question in a similar manner during the event.

The invitations are evidence that the district’s ongoing attempts to blur the divide between special-needs students and standard education kids is working, Lythberg said.

Dan Hennigan, who works with kids with autism at Shepard, said the mixed physical education class is “changing the lives of kids with disabilities and also the lives of kids without.”

The program, he said, “proves inclusion works in the real world.”

In addition, he said, “So many seniors now want to become special education teachers because of this program. They would never have had that exposure if it wasn’t for this program.”

Illinois District 218’s two other schools, Richards in Oak Lawn and Eisenhower in Blue Island, also offer the class, which invites general education students to work with kids enrolled in any of the district’s multi-needs, cognitive, and autism programs. Power PE, which began as a pilot two years ago at Shepard, now boasts 55 “mentors” and 43 “buddies,” Hennigan said.

The initiative was started “because we want all our kids to be included,” Hennigan said. “We want them to want to be together.”

Under the watchful eye of mentor Grace Betz, Richards sophomore Trevor Thompson ran the obstacle course that culminated in “downing” a large bop bag.

At the end, the two reviewed a “high-five” routine they created.

“Hugs, hand shakes, fist bumps, and high-fives,” Grace said. Trevor repeated the sequence, physically and verbally.

“All right,” Grace said.

Hennigan, who also works part-time at the sports facility, said the company donates the space and time to the district _ an outing that, he said, would costs into the thousands if they had to pay.

As the students moved from baseball to kickball, many pausing to bounce a giant silver ball across a field, Hennigan said, traditionally, special-needs students “are in a self-contained setting. We wanted our kids to be around their peers, to be teenagers because they are teenagers. Some may look different on the outside but they want to be included, they want to be liked, they want to have friends.”

The hard part, particularly with autism, he said, “is that some of our students lack the social skills to maybe start a conversation or meet a friend. This sets that up for them. Now, we’re starting to see kids visiting each other after school. It’s expanding more than we ever expected.”

Kate Evoy also works in the Shepard autism program. She said Power PE is not unique to the district.

“We’re seeing more of a push at high schools across the country to include students with special needs as much as possible,” Evoy said. “I think electives in PE are a really good place to start. There are other districts that have similar programs. They’re all kind of the same in the sense that they pair mentors with special-needs kids. The mentors get training, which helps them learn how to interact.”

Lauren Sheehan, a special education teacher at Shepard, said the concept of unification is expanding to other programs, including athletics.

“This is the first time we did a unified sports team for Special Olympics,” Sheehan said. “Unified means gen-ed and special-ed peers on the same team. Everyone plays. It’s an initiative that Special Olympics started a few years ago.”

This year, she said, Shepard also fielded a unified soccer team. “We had seven athletes in special-ed and six or seven gen-ed peers on the same team,” she said.

“The point,” she said, “is to take that inclusion mind frame that schools are trying to promote as much as possible and do that in athletics.”