By Courtney Freitag
With intense purpose on his face, Taylor* (*not his real name) navigates the halls of St. Helens High School, clear and determined to complete his job. Even his Social Guide, Adriana, walks briskly to keep up with him.
“Good morning, would you like to order from the Coffee Cart today?” says the electronic voice, generated from an iPhone® app that hangs from a lanyard around Taylor’s neck. The school staff’s expressions are clear that they anticipate his visit every day.
“Yes, Taylor. I would like to order,” says a woman in the school’s main office. Although non-verbal, his face brightens as he hands her the order form. Each coffee order is completed with a high-five and fist bump.
“If I’m having a bad day,” says Adriana, “he makes me happy.”
Taylor and Adriana are part of SHH’s Students Helping Inspire Non-Judgemental Equality (SHINE) club, a program developed in 2007 by a group of special education teachers, specialists, parents and administrators. The popular program integrates students with and without disabilities in a variety of school settings. Students volunteer their time and act as Social Guides to those with severe disabilities within the school environment.
Taylor walks the completed orders to the school’s cafeteria to fill the orders, then returns with hot lattés and espressos to awaiting teachers and staff.
High-five, fist bump.
“We’re really giving them ground level experience,” said Syb Owens, SHINE’s program director. “It’s great for the students and it’s career development for the Social Guides.”
Nearly 30 students make up the SHINE club and interact with each other in a variety of school-related activities that can include:
- Sharing lunch time together
- Finding similar interests
- Reading a magazine
- Solving a puzzle
- Playing board games
- Walking around the school together
- Community outings with chaperones
- Hanging out during Activities Period
- Mainstreaming into a general education classroom
Collaborating at a table in the sun-filled classroom, 16-year-old Andrew, a special education student, giggles as he completes a task and receives Skittles as a reward. The staff reviews social stories and signage about transportation and road signs with the group and provides thoughtful support and encouragement along the way.
High-five, fist bump.
Senior Dahnrae Duncan gently puts a squishy fidget in the hands of a student, reading her a social story of traveling to New York—a story Duncan wrote and illustrated for use in the classroom. She considers her four years of participating in the SHINE program as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“They teach you a lot,” Duncan says. “I’ve watched them grow up and it will be an emotional experience when I leave at the end of the year.”
Duncan says her work with the special education students and the SHINE program has motivated her to pursue a career in psychiatry.
In 2007, the Special Education staff took a closer look at how they could bring the social aspects of high school to those that were in the Life Skills classroom.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What can we do to drop these walls?’” says Lori Thompson, special education coordinator for the St. Helens School District. “How can we foster community and look at other ways to bring peers to them.”
As the SHINE program was being developed, school staff found:
- Students without disabilities felt awkward approaching students with disabilities
- Students with disabilities ate lunch at their own table with instructional assistants
- When walking down the hall, students with disabilities were anchored to an adult (usually less than two feet of space)
- Many students without disabilities had gone to school with students with severe disabilities since Kindergarten
- All students lived in the community
- Students with severe disabilities participated in general education classes (art, music, journalism, foods) but often sat at the back of the class with an instructional assistant
Michelle Ekstrom, an educational assistant with 14 years experience in the autism field, says the students she works with are experiencing puberty and similar changes that their neurotypical peers are. They just need trust and compassion, she says.
Social Guides receive volunteer credit, letters of recommendations and class credits. Students are trained by special education staff, trained with other students, are involved in Parent Night dialogue and receive specific training on disabilities and inclusive practices. Students can also join the SHINE program by completing a Senior Project in the Special Education area that interests them.
The program’s goal is to implement a SHINE program throughout the K-12 system as well as in the community for those that have graduated high school.
And that is worthy of any high-five or fist bump.