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Voice: September 2016
This story is part of a regular series, "Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools,'' that features educators who are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania's public schools. For other stories in the series go to http://www.psea.org/learninglessons.
In physical education class at Biglerville High School, students are learning lessons that go far beyond the rules of baseball or the intricacies of basketball skills. They are learning how to adapt, empathize, and interact with each other, no matter their differences.
The Unified P.E. class at the Adams County school brings together general education student mentors with peers, who are students with autism or intellectual disabilities. The result? Students learning from each other and growing in unique ways.
"The course is designed to meet the needs of the life skills and autistic students with the help of general education students," said Juanita Gardner, physical education teacher. "General education students are paired up with a student from the life skills or autistic classroom. These students will learn various skills and strategies through a variety of activities and sports.
"The general education student will learn what is needed to design and implement an appropriate activity for the students with special needs. Both students participate alongside each other in various physical activities."
Both mentors and peers benefit from the integrated class, which Gardner started after learning about a similar program from a friend teaching in Maryland.
"The benefits to the Unified P.E. class are two-fold," said Suzanne Kuhn, former head of the physical education department at Biglerville High School (since retired), which is part of the Upper Adams School District. "The peers are learning new skills and work to perfect them each day with practice. They are also learning valuable life lessons with teamwork and discipline. The mentors are gaining lessons in planning, working with others, and learning skills in games and movement. They are also exploring a career in teaching, which may lead to a job they pursue later in life."
This last point holds true for many of the student mentors who participate in the class.
"Taking part in the Unified P.E. class has been a blessing," said Sydney Trimmer, who graduated in May. "It's been a great opportunity for me since I want to be a special education teacher."
The students who participate in the Unified P.E. program - both peers and mentors - find inspiration in the strength and courage shown by each other.
"I believe the greatest benefit (of this program) is the motivation that the mentors are able to inspire in their peers," said Danielle Thompson, an autistic support teacher at Biglerville High School. "This motivation carries over to the classroom with students wanting to impress their mentors with their grades and achievements."
Creating a safe environment
Many of the students with autism or intellectual disabilities in the district were previously hesitant to participate in physical education class. The Unified P.E. program provides a safe and welcoming environment for everyone.
"Unified P.E. has eliminated the stress of a physical education class for both the mentors and their peers," Thompson said. "Many of my students find the noise, movement, and unpredictability of P.E. class overwhelming. Having mentors has allowed our students to feel more comfortable and willing to participate in P.E."
The educators in the district aren't the only ones noticing the impact the program has made in just a short amount of time.
"My students have expressed to me that this class has made them stronger, allowed them to learn how to run faster, and given them the opportunity to learn new sports and exercises," Thompson said. "They have shared that having mentors with them makes them feel like they can accomplish anything, and it relieves their stress."
The impact continues when the students head home.
"Parents have reported an increased interest in physical activity at home, and getting involved in outside sports or fitness programs," Thompson said. "Parents have also shared that their son or daughter often sees their mentor in the community, which allows for positive peer interaction and support in other stressful environments."
Filling a void
The Unified P.E. program fills a void by giving students with special needs an equal opportunity to connect and form relationships with fellow students.
"It's important to have a program like this because students with special needs want and deserve the opportunity to learn and participate in physical activity that promotes a healthier lifestyle," Thompson said. "This course, or one like it, fills a much-needed gap in our educational system. We often only have two layers of course options, regular or modified, and some students don't fit perfectly in either. That is where a course like Unified can fill that void."
Many students welcome the opportunity to form these bonds that they may not have been brave enough to seek out without a class like Unified P.E.
"In high school there is a lot of diversity, but there's not as much acceptance as I wish there was with kids with special needs," Trimmer said. "This class brings in kids who aren't normally around those with special needs, and it lets them see how special the peers are. There are so many kids in this class who normally wouldn't say 'hi' to the kids with special needs, and now they do because they have gotten to see them as people and not as disabilities."