Student-run program works with special ed

Leadership students aid special ed students with socialization skills


Photo by Des Jower

Leadership student Caitlin Willard, left, works with sophomore Erika Reed. Students in the program work on several different arts and crafts projects on every visit.

Emma Hall, Managing Editor

Sophomore Samantha Meier created a system where she and volunteers from the school’s leadership program work alongside special education students.

“Most of the time they only get to interact with their teachers,” said Meier. “So what we are really trying to do is to get the special ed students to socialize and develop friendships with other students outside their classroom.”

Leadership works to help students improve communication and social skills. The students participating in the program include freshmen Erika Reed and Richard Perez, sophomores Noah Renaud and Amin Ridzuen, and senior Stephen Tyler.

“Leadership is amazing,” said special ed teacher Christine Nieomeller. “It is hard for my students to reach out to their peers, so giving them an opportunity of interaction in their own setting is great.”

Every Thursday for up to an hour, leadership students interact with special ed students, participating in activities together such as arts and crafts, watching movies, and celebrating birthdays. The class celebrated Renaud, Ridzuen, and Niemoeller’s birthdays this month. Meier provided students with gift bags that contained special presents for them.

Both Niemoeller and Ridzuen were excited about their gifts. Niemoeller received bath soaps and perfumes, and Ridzuen said it was the best birthday ever.

Leadership then transitioned the students to an art table where they were in a hands on activity involving decorating paper Day of the Dead sugar skulls.

Throughout the hour, the leadership students were very engaged with special ed students. Niemoeller and other leadership students tried to get every student involved, and always kept students company when needed.

“These students just want to be treated normally like any other member of Cal High,” said sophomore Megann Swiers. “Working with them has taught me an important lesson on how to treat people the way you want to be treated.”

The special ed students enjoy it when leadership students visit.

“I like when the leaders come in,” Renaud said. “I like when we paint and add stickers (to our sugar skulls.)”

Niemoeller also recollects the excitement of her students when leadership students visit class.

Leadership students who volunteer for the program are placed into groups of six or seven people.

Every 20-25 minutes, the groups switch, so that everyone, special ed students and leadership students alike, can interact with each other.

“Working with these students makes me become more patient and understanding,” said junior Ellie Stark. “It really gives me a different perspective.”

Leadership teacher Erin McFerrin is a huge fan of this program and loves that it is fully student-run.

She said that she hopes that this program opens up more opportunities for special ed students on campus in the future.

“In our school’s mission statement there’s the phrase ‘all students’ which is hugely important to my own philosophy on education,” said McFerrin. “It was encouraging to me when leadership decided they wanted to work with students who are unfairly marginalized or left out because of their special needs.”

Amin Ridzuen, left, and senior Hennah Shamel hold up their Day of the Dead sugar skulls.
Photo by Des Jower
Amin Ridzuen, left, and senior Hennah Shamel hold up their Day of the Dead sugar skulls.

Meier was inspired to start this program when she was in eighth grade at Pine Valley Middle School. She was a part of a buddy system with the special ed students on campus, but she always felt that the 20 minutes she was given to work with her buddy was not enough, so she brought her own version of the program to Cal.

Although the result is rewarding, organizing the program was not easy.

Meier usually spends five hours a week making lesson plans for their visits, organizing activities, making goody bags for birthday parties, and picking specific arts and craft projects for students to participate in.

The huge commitment alone might discourage others from continuing on with this project, but Meier’s passion for helping others drives her onwards.

“I’ve worked it into my school schedule.” said Meier. “Even though it is a lot of work it is totally worth it.”

With the success that this program has brought both leadership and the special ed class, Meier wishes to extend it to not just leadership but the student body and keep the program running even long after she’s graduated.

Meier believes that every school should have the program that she and her leadership peers have brought to life.