By Adam Breen
Inclusion is more than an educational buzzword at San Benito High School in Hollister, Calif., where students with special needs are not just included, but embraced and accepted by their general education peers. The school has no fewer than 10 programs that focus on preparing students in the Life Skills program “to be active and confident members of our community and of society,” according to Paulette Cobb, the district’s director of special education.
Beyond the benefits that these various programs have for students with disabilities, “we build empathetic and socially conscious general education peers through our inclusionary practices,” Cobb said.
With names like “Gifted Cheer,” “Gifted Soccer,” “Life Skills Prom” and the “Peer Helper Program,” the district offers a wide range of programs that Cobb proudly notes were not mandated curriculum but rather put in place by staff and/or students.
Circle of Friends
The Circle of Friends program, piloted with 30 students in 2010 by Special Education Program Specialist and Department Chair Casandra Guerrero, has blossomed to include approximately 250 general education students supporting nearly 60 students with special needs, making it the largest club on campus. Based on the inclusion program founded by Barbara Palilis, COF pairs students with developmental disabilities with non-disabled peers to make a connection at lunch, practice social skills in a natural environment and raise awareness and acceptance of others on campus.
“I believe it has made the campus culture more accepting and inclusive of all students and created an opening for opportunities that may not have been there otherwise,” Guerrero said. “I have heard from general education peers that they learned a lot about themselves and how to be a compassionate and accepting person.”
A predecessor to Circle of Friends, the Gifted Games began in 2005 as a way for SBHS Life Skills students to train for and participate in athletics in a non-competitive atmosphere. The activity then expanded to an event that invited all preschool through high school students from Hollister Elementary School District schools to compete at the campus stadium. In 2011, the Games invited the Gilroy Unified School District to participate.
For the past seven years, Baler Biscuits has given students in the Life Skills program real-world business experience making and selling dog treats in partnership with the district’s Workability program. Students are responsible for making the dough, bagging the treats and selling them on campus and in the community. The effort helps students develop and practice skills such as communication, math and business skills, social interaction, organization and occupational skills and mobility.
The Peer Helper program, developed on campus in 2011, is a class in which general education students attend Life Skills classes to serve as extra support for teachers and students. The helpers may be assigned to a particular student or a group of students to provide support on academic, functional and social tasks. Many peer helpers credit their experience as a springboard to a special education teaching career.
Founded in the 2015–16 school year, Gifted Cheer gives students with disabilities the opportunity to develop motor skills, coordinate movement and dance, and show their school spirit as a full-fledged cheer squad supported by the Baler Cheer students. Gifted Cheer students perform at football and basketball games in the fall and winter. Members of the school’s cheerleading squad stand next to or behind the Gifted Cheerleaders, if needed, helping them with their movements and offering encouragement.
Baler Buckaroos Rodeo
Begun in 2016–17 by SBHS instructional aide and alumna Danielle Craig, with help from Future Farmers of America and community sponsors, general education students help students with disabilities enjoy modified rodeo events including goat tail untying, single-stake stick horse races, dummy roping and boot and hat races.
Based on an idea from social media, Happy Cup is a campus beverage and snack service run by the Special Education Department, whose students make drinks and snacks to sell to staff around campus. Delivering the product helps the students learn their way around campus and understand directions and street safety.
Life Skills Prom
For the past seven years, the school’s Associated Student Body and Circle of Friends has helped coordinate a prom for the Life Skills program. Students with and without disabilities attend, as general education students are encouraged to ask students in the Life Skills program to the dance.
The newest inclusion effort on campus is Gifted Soccer, which senior varsity soccer player and peer teacher Mariana Magana created to give students with disabilities the opportunity to play a competitive game in the main campus quad, complete with a cheering section of students on their lunch break.
“The continuum of inclusion for students with severe disabilities is beneficial for all demographics on campus — students with disabilities, general education peers and adults,” Cobb said. “This is not a school-driven situation. Everyone is in it together and inspired to do so. No one is required to have done any of these amazing things; they are just so incredible and so giving.”
San Benito High School District Superintendent Shawn Tennenbaum, a former special education teacher himself, said the district and its board of trustees “could not be more proud” of how the inclusion model is woven into the school culture. “Our hope is that other schools and districts will embrace an inclusive environment for all students, thus helping society as a whole.”
Adam Breen is the public information/community relations officer for the San Benito High School District.