EDINA, Minn. — In one corner of Edina’s South View Middle School, each day starts with a lesson in friendship.

There are no specific directions or assignments. But there are board games, time for conversation, and most important, an opportunity for kids who would once have lived very separate lives at school to get to know each other.

South View’s Peer Insights program pairs students in special education with their general-education peers, opening lines of connection that extend throughout the school day — and beyond. The middle schoolers sit side by side in the classroom and the lunch table, come together for special events like a dance marathon or the homecoming parade, and hang out on the weekend.

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Little by little, the program is transforming the culture of the school — and the way individual students think about themselves, their peers and the bigger world outside of South View. It’s become one of the most in-demand activities for students across the school, and has captured the attention of other school districts and recognition from Special Olympics Minnesota. And more than a few students are now imagining careers as special education teachers or classroom paraprofessionals.

Eighth-grader Luke Hoekstra said the time he spends each morning in an “advisory” period with students in Aspire, the school’s special education program, has helped spark real connections and become a highlight of his day.

“When I joined it, I felt it was an opportunity to help other kids, but now it doesn’t feel like I’m helping — it just feels like I’m coming to advisory with my friends,” he said.

Aspire student Filsan Sharif, also an eighth-grader, feels much the same way. She beamed as she talked about befriending the Peer Insights students who show up each day in her classroom.

“I always see them at lunch and sit with them,” she said.

The program started nearly a decade ago, with an idea from special education teacher Jessica Cherne and a handful of middle schoolers interested in spending time in special education classrooms. It didn’t take long for Peer Insights to become a full-fledged leadership program at South View, attracting dozens of eager participants who must fill out applications and sit for an interview to land a spot. This year, about 80 general-education students were picked as Peer Insights student leaders. They work with two dozen students in special education.

Before starting with Peer Insights, all the selected students receive training to broaden their understanding of people with disabilities and to learn more about different communication styles — including those of students who must use high-tech communication devices, often mounted to a wheelchair. Once they’re ready to go, many of the general-education students spend the first 20 minutes of their day with Aspire students in the school’s special education center.

They return in smaller groups throughout the day when they have free periods to help any students who need additional assistance keeping focused or with reading or writing lessons.

Cheering section

On a recent morning, a half-dozen Peer Insights leaders helped run a morning meeting in a special education classroom, cheering on Aspire student Jeanette Torres-Alpizar, who was wary about stepping up to the whiteboard for a lesson about marking the days and months on a calendar. With some encouragement from her peers, she tentatively stepped forward.

“You’re doing great!” shouted one of the students. When Torres-Alpizar landed a date on the right spot on the calendar, the room burst into applause.

At a nearby table, another Peer Insights participant, eighth-grader Muna Mohamud-Karie, spoke quietly with an Aspire student who was struggling to focus on the morning’s lessons, and growing increasingly agitated.

Mohamud-Karie quickly came up with a solution: would the girl like to step out for a few minutes to swing in a nearby “motor room,” filled with equipment for students with sensory disorders?

The girl nodded, uncurled herself from her chair, and followed Mohamud-Karie out of the room.

Emily Heckmann, a paraprofessional who works with students in special education, said she’s often amazed at how quickly the Peer Insights students can pick up on cues and become a helpful presence in the classroom.

“They learn really fast,” she said. “Some of these kids, you’d never expect that they’d be so great and patient and understanding and willing to jump in and help with anything.”

Mohamud-Karie, just a few weeks into her first year as a Peer Insights participant, said she’s quickly found much to enjoy in her time working with and befriending Aspire students. She’s realized that something as simple as a walk around the school grounds can be a much-needed reset for everyone involved — including herself.

“Just being around these kids makes me want to interact with people with disabilities more, either to help or have a fun time and get to know them better,” she said.

Sue Sullivan, whose son, Dermot, is in the special education program, said she’s seen the benefits of the program from both sides; her older son was a Peer Insights mentor before Dermot was paired with general-education students.

Even though her younger son is nonverbal and uses a wheelchair, he’s built up a group of friends and fans among his schoolmates, including many who run up and greet him when the family is out in the community.

“The program teaches them (that his disability) is not something to be afraid of,” Sullivan said. “It’s not weird. Everybody’s got differences.”

Unifying schools

Special education teacher Jennie Schaefer, who has helped oversee Peer Insights for the last six years, said all those small connections between students add up. Since the program started, she said there’s been a sea change in how just about everybody at South View thinks about how special education programs and students can — and should — fit in the school. Gone are the days when students in special education spent the majority of their day tucked away in specific classrooms, passing other students in the hallway without either group knowing much about the other.

Schaefer said both students and teachers take note when they see Peer Insights and Aspire students sitting together at lunch, hanging out at special events or making plans outside of the school day.

Before, Schaefer said, “(special education) students didn’t go out. Now it’s normal for my students to go to choir and P.E. and art,” she said.

“So it’s also shifted the mindset of general ed teachers, too, because they see the benefit of that social connection.”

The movement to integrate students in special education into more of the school day — and into after-school activities — has been growing in recent years. At South View, and elsewhere, school leaders have been working with Special Olympics Minnesota to set up events, athletic groups and schoolwide programs that aim to bring students together and remove barriers. At South View, Peer Insights students have taken a leading role in organizing a dance marathon and awareness campaigns that help students think about how they talk to — and about — people with disabilities.

Nick Cedergren, schools and leadership manager for Special Olympics Minnesota, said his organization works with about 200 schools statewide, including about 125 that Special Olympics has named “Unified Champion Schools.” Of those schools, he said South View stands out; in 2015 it became the first middle school in the state to earn that distinction, and has since picked up several other awards.

The school has become a model for others in the state and across the country, attracting other school leaders who want to visit and see for themselves how Peer Insights is creating real change.

“I think the best part about this is that it’s kind of a ripple effect,” Cedergren said.

“What South View Middle School is doing is spreading.”

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