Peer Buddies builds connections for disabled students - March 21 2013

Merrill Middle School program to be featured at Celebrate Education event
OSHKOSH, WI -- Naja is a special education student at Merrill Middle School who really loves to dance.

Her passion touched the school dance team, who asked the special education staff if Naja could join their squad. Naja did not have any free time after school to participate in practice, but her friends on the dance team would not give up so easily. The students decided to give up their lunch period to teach Naja some dance moves in the classroom.

Photo caption: Students at Merrill Middle School participate in the Peer Buddies lunch time program. Photo courtesy of Paul Smith/Merrill Middle School

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  • These students' initiative and kindness to include Naja in their activities inspired special education teacher Paul Smith to create the Peer Buddies mentoring program.

    "The goal is to think of all of our students as being students at Merrill Middle School and try to look past the disability, but not discount it," says Merrill Middle School Principal Cindy Olson.

    Peer Buddies aims to create long-lasting relationships between students who have disabilities and their general education peers in sixth-, seventh- and eighth- grade. The program continues to be developed as the school year progresses, but Smith has seen great strides already.

    "We have definitely heard a lot of kids saying 'Hi' to our (disabled) kids in the hall and knowing who they are," says Smith. "I have also heard stories from parents about being out in the community doing their shopping and there are a lot more kids saying 'Hi' to their child."

    The program is one of 18 that received a Celebrate Education Grant in 2012 and it will be a featured grant program during this year's event. Celebrate Education will be held from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Monday, March 25, at the Oshkosh Convention Center. The event is free and open to the public. Please call the Community Foundation office at 920-426-3993 or click here to register.

    More than $20,000 in grants will be awarded to 24 local educators, who along with other leaders and volunteers will be recognized for their innovative contributions to education in the Oshkosh area.

    Peer Buddies was introduced to students at Merrill as a lunch program. Twice a week, general education students join special needs students for lunch and then spend time doing activities like making arts and crafts, playing board games or video games and talking.

    Most of the general education students who participate have volunteered their time all on their own, while others have been recruited by the special education staff.

    This lunch program helps learning disabled students gain experience in a social setting and also give them an opportunity to interact with someone who is not a parental figure, says Smith.

    "A couple of our students with special needs have really intensive autism, so social interactions are not easy for them and that is kind of why we wanted to do this," Smith said. "The thing is they really need the practice of building up a tolerance of being in a social situation. For other kids, it is really practicing being around their peers because it is not always something that comes easy to them."

    Since the Peer Buddies was started in early January, about 62 students have taken part, about 20 per session.

    "We have found, in a natural way, kids have been gravitating towards each other," says Smith. "Girls gravitate towards the girls and they talk about Justin Bieber and things middle school girls talk about, and the boys gravitate towards the boys and talk about computer games and stuff middle school boys talk about. We definitely let it evolve naturally like that."

    Peer Buddies has not only made a difference in the lives of learning disabled students at Merrill, but the general education students as well, says Olson. The program gives general education students an opportunity to understand why special education students behave the way they do.

    "A student with a cognitive disability may do things that are perceived as strange if you don't know that student. But once you know (that student), those behaviors aren't strange anymore," says Olson. "You just need to understand that everybody is different and everybody goes through life in a different way. And that doesn't make it wrong, and it doesn't make it bad. It just makes it different."

    Linda Brownlea, a paraprofessional at Merrill, says as more general education students participate, the comfort levels have increased among their learning disabled peers.

    "The students who come in genuinely want to make a difference and are a great asset to our program," says Brownlea. "If anyone walked in during this time, they would just see a bunch of kids having fun - no labels."

    Smith would like to expand Peer Buddies from classroom activities to community field trips, such as bowling or going out for ice cream. And as the students move from middle school to high school, Smith hopes the relationships students have created at Merrill will continue.

    "It is going to be great to have so many kids that know them, because high school can be kind of a big scary big place when you get there," says Smith. "I think it is really important to have all those familiar faces around when you get there."


    Celebrate Education is sponsored by the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation, Oshkosh Area School District, Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce, Oshkosh Mid-Morning Kiwanis, Wisconsin Public Service and Oshkosh Rotary Southwest.

    The Oshkosh Area Community Foundation is a nonprofit charitable organization created by and for the people of Winnebago County, Waushara County, Green Lake County and Ripon. Through charitable giving, the Community Foundation strives to make our communities thrive. For more information, please call 920-426-3993.

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