High school promotes inclusive culture

Life Skills students, peers interact in varying programs

BALER CHEER Michael Hogg with his daughter Sharida Hogg and her escort Mikey Cruddas, both students in the Life Skills program at San Benito High School, are honored at one of many inclusion events on campus.

Inclusion is more than an educational buzzword at San Benito High School, where students with special needs are not just included, but embraced and accepted, by their general education peers.

The school has around 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.

The programs are not mandated curriculum, but rather put in place by staff and/or students, according to Cobb.

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 about 250 general education students supporting nearly 60 students with special needs. Based on the inclusion program founded by Barbara Palilis, COF pairs students with developmental disabilities with non-disabled peers to make a connection, practice social skills in a natural environment and raise awareness and acceptance of others on campus.

The club, now the largest on campus, has students meet at lunch once or twice a week and also use texting, phone calls and social media as they are able.

“I believe it has made the campus culture more accepting and inclusive of all students and created opening for opportunities that may not have been there otherwise,” Guerrero said.

COF also hosts banquets, dances, movie nights, classroom ability awareness presentations and an anti-bullying assembly.

“Since the inception of COF, teachers, administrators and students have reported an improvement in inclusion and acceptance overall on campus, including a drop in disciplinary incidents involving the special education population the year after it started,” Guerrero said.

Gifted Games

The Gifted Games began in 2005 as a way for San Benito Life Skills students to train for and participate in athletics in a non-competitive atmosphere. The activity then expanded to an event that invited students from Hollister Elementary School District schools to compete at the campus stadium and, in 2011, the Games invited the Gilroy Unified School District to participate.

The Gifted Games, now in its 13th year, is open to all preschool through high school students in San Benito County and Gilroy Unified, and the event, with 400 students, is hosted in alternating years by San Benito and Gilroy High schools.

Baler Biscuits

Another project Sauer coordinates is Baler Biscuits, which for the past seven years has given students in the Life Skills program real-world business experience making and selling dog treats.

Peer Helpers

The Peer Helper program, formed 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—there can be two or three in every severely disabled classroom—may be assigned to a particular student or a group of students to provide support on academic, functional and social tasks. Class of 2013 alumna Ellie Burley was a peer helper for two years and is now a special education teacher at her alma mater.

Gifted Cheer

Founded in the 2015-16 school year by Hilda Cascio, Gifted Cheer gives boys and girls with disabilities the opportunity to develop gross motor skills, coordinate movement and dance, and show their school spirit as a full-fledged cheer squad supported by the Baler Cheer students.

Baler Buckaroos Rodeo

Starting in 2016-17 by San Benito 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.

Happy Cup

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.

“This helps students learn job skills for when they graduate,” said Maura Forbush, a Baler  alumna-turned Special Education teacher. She said every student shares roles such as cart pusher, beverage dispenser, pastry identifier, cash register operator and hostess/host.

Life Skills Prom

For the past seven years, the school’s Associated Student Body has helped coordinate a Prom for the Life Skills program, complete with food provided by the school’s food services department, a slide show and decorations by Circle of Friends.

Raymond Andrade, a new special education instructional aide, helped start the Prom when he was a student at San Benito.

Gifted Soccer

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 games are scheduled throughout the spring semester.

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