Westhill Elementary, Northshore Jr. High are recipients of SEPAC grant

  • Written by Deborah Stone
(Left) Northshore Junior High students are encouraging kids to get to know one another. At Westhill Elementary (right), students are “crushing” hurtful words. Courtesy photo.
The Northshore School District’s Special Education Parent/Professional Advisory Committee (SEPAC) is an active support and advisory network comprised of parents, professionals and administrators who work together for the benefit of special needs kids in the district.

The group sponsors monthly presentations on relevant topics, holds a monthly board meeting to discuss issues related to district special education programs, provides resources for parents and teachers, assists with advocacy and aids with summer scholarships.

This year, for the first time, SEPAC offered a $1,500 grant to the schools that had the best proposal for a student-led initiative promoting inclusive practices, improving school culture, fostering a sense of belonging within the school and building leadership in the student body.

The projects didn’t have to be about disability; they just had to involve youth from general and special education classes and needed to be designed to build community.

The grant, called The James McDonald Inclusion Grant, in memory of a former Northshore student, was awarded to two schools: Westhill Elementary, which received $500, and Northshore Junior High, which was given $1,000.

At Westhill, students are holding a “Crush It!! Campaign” to “crush” the use of hurtful words and promote tolerance and diversity awareness at their school.

Parent Danielle McDonald helped to write the grant proposal and is the guiding mentor for the students.

She says, “We believe there is always a need for this type of program. Kids who are different often have a hard time fitting in and are treated differently. Children don’t usually know how to handle situations, especially uncomfortable ones, and they need help in learning how to interact with their special needs peers.”

McDonald explains that there are two parts to the program. The first involves designated sixth graders with demonstrated leadership skills who are trained to go into other grade level classes and read specific books with anti-bullying messages. Then they initiate a discussion with the students about the stories. A parent facilitator is on hand to assist if needed. “The message we want to get across,” says McDonald, “is kindness, even to a bully. We are teaching kids to be positive, to be kind, and we are giving them techniques and strategies to use in difficult situations.”

The second part of the program is geared towards incorporating the school’s Contained Learning Center (CLC) classes with the rest of the school through a buddy system. The idea here, according to McDonald, is to pair a “typically developed” or mainstreamed student with a CLC student and together the pair serves as a big buddy to assigned kindergarten or first grade students. They will work as a team and engage with the other children during recess and in the classroom for special projects.

“We’re expanding on this by also training a group of kids to be advocates on the playground for special needs kids,” adds McDonald. “They will help to demystify the special needs kids for the mainstreamed kids so both are comfortable interacting together.”

McDonald feels that the program will enhance awareness among all students of the need to be open and to keep an eye out for others that could use a helping hand.

Over at Northshore Jr. High, students have formed Titan Teamwork and have devised many fun events to encourage kids to get to know one another. They are planning activities to include all students and hopefully help break down social barriers of popularity and cliques.

“We definitely have a need for this,” says Jill Bush, ASB seventh grade rep. “We’re all in our own groups all the time. One of the ways we want to change this is to have ‘Mix it up days,’ where students will be randomly put at different tables to sit at during lunch. This way, they’ll be with kids they normally don’t sit with and they will get a chance to get to know new people.”

Special needs students would be involved in this activity, as well, to give them and the mainstreamed students an opportunity to spend more time together.

“We don’t really know many of the special needs kids,” comments ninth grader Caroline Hung, who is the ASB art director. “This will allow us a chance to interact with them more and to make them feel more a part of the school.”

Other events planned include themed spirit days, lunchtime games and socials.

“The name has been changed from dances to socials,” explains Missy Downs, ASB president. “And we are going to give everyone a golden ticket, a personal invitation to come to the social. We want every student to feel comfortable about coming.” She adds, “Sometimes students feel intimidated about participating in these types of events, so we wanted to do something to change that – to encourage everyone to come and to make everyone feel welcome.”

The school already has its WEB (Where Everybody Belongs) Leader program in place to assist seventh graders in acclimating to Northshore’s environment.

The program utilizes ninth grade leaders as guides to small groups of seventh grade students. Initially, it was only put into play at the start of the school year, but now the program is continuing year-round, with scheduled monthly group activities emphasizing teamwork.

“I’ve met a lot of new people through WEB,” comments Jill. “I think it’s a great program.”

The other piece of the grant focuses on a national program called “True Colors,” which will soon become a part of the fabric of the school.

Northshore Jr. High’s assistant principal, Stacy Cho, heralds “True Colors” and explains that it is a model for understanding yourself and others based on your personality temperament.

The colors of orange, green, blue and gold are used to differentiate the four central personality styles of “True Colors.”

“Though each of us is a combination of these colors,” says Cho, “we have one that is most dominant. By identifying your personality and the personalities of others using these colors, you can get insight into communication and behavior styles, which will help in knowing how to relate to people.”

Cho explains that she and several other administrators and counselors who have been trained in the program will give workshops to teach the students about “True Colors” and its applications.

“At first, we were only going to train student leaders, but then we decided it was so important that we needed to train the entire school,” says Cho. “A school needs all the colors to function and we want students and teachers to be able to understand one another better.”

She adds, “After the training, we’re going to do a number of different activities around the colors, like have color days, color tables at lunch, etc.”

Cho adds that programs like “True Colors” are vital, especially at the junior high level. She notes that changes are happening quickly for this age group and emotions often run high.

“There’s a lot going on with these kids,” she comments. “They’re developing who they are and transitioning to being more independent. Some think they’re the only ones with certain feelings and situations, not realizing that there are others out there that are experiencing the same things. Knowing that there are others they can relate to that feel similarly will help them realize they are not alone.”

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