By Meghan Bobrowsky, Brooke Lee and Scout Brown,
Tucked away on the south side of campus is a tiny classroom with a poster that reads “Best Buddies.” For many students with moderate to severe disabilities, this is home.
Inclusion Specialist Leti Vasquez co-leads a special education program with Debra Covert that aims to include these students in the life of Davis High as much as possible. That’s unusual, says Associate Superintendent Matt Best.
“In other districts, if you have a severe disability, you might be in a special classroom for six-sevenths of your day. We generally flip that,” he said.
To ensure that the student is being included in day-to-day activities, Vasquez and Covert create Individual Education Plans and meet annually with a team of special educators, school psychologists and regular classroom teachers.
Usually students in the inclusion program aren’t on track to graduate high school, but there’s been a significantly higher number of students on the diploma track in recent years, Vasquez said.
She attributes the rising number of graduates to the paraeducators who take the students to their general education classes and assist them throughout the day. Some students require a one-on-one paraeducator while others can be supervised with one or two other students. The amount of help a student needs from a paraeducator also depends on the class, according to Vasquez.
“We have students that excel at English but are really poor at math or vice versa. Then a lot of our students just need support as far as just being able to socialize with their peers appropriately,” Vasquez added.
Megan Cinderey is one of the paraeducators that Vasquez singled out for appreciation. Cinderey is currently finishing her first year as a full-time paraeducator for Davis High and is in awe at the progress her students have made over the past ten months.
“We get to know our students on a personal level — what their favorite things are, what they love about DSHS and all the little facts in between,” Cinderey said.
On a typical day, Cinderey works with up to 15 students in academic classroom settings, at lunch or breaks and with other extracurricular activities. As a result, she’s able to see her students grow both academically and individually as people, Cinderey said.
Paraeducators aren’t the only helping hands in the special education program. Senior Clare Mullin started the Best Buddies Club this school year with the goal of “preventing the isolation of students with disabilities,” she said.
At the beginning of the year, all the students in the club filled out a questionnaire, and were paired with their buddy based on common interests. Students with disabilities are the “best buddies” and students without disabilities are the “peer buddies,” Vasquez said.
“Luckily this year there’s been a pretty big outcome as far as how many students are actually involved and our families are really impressed with the program,” Vasquez said.
The group meets weekly in C-4 to talk, play board games and draw together, Mullin said. Additionally, there’s a requirement of four monthly contacts and two activities to ensure that the friendship lasts.
“We want the school as a whole realize that students with intellectual and developmental disabilities are just the same as people without,” Mullin said. “They enjoy stuff like hanging out with friends and going to the movies just like everyone else.”
Mullin was matched up with her best buddy — Adam Olivas, a senior with Down Syndrome — through their shared interest in track and field throwing events. She enjoys watching Olivas improve at shot put as the weeks go by, she said.
“The club is such a great experience and allows you to see what other people go through. I’m just so happy that Best Buddies has given me the opportunity to make so many new friends that I will cherish forever,” Mullin said.