Schools Promote Culture of Acceptance and Understanding

May 26, 2015

New programs at several Frisco ISD schools are helping to forge friendships between students of diverse backgrounds and abilities.

Several middle and high schools have launched chapters of Best Buddies, a student organization that pairs special and general education students together to form one-to-one friendships and participate in activities outside of the school day.

Pioneer Heritage Middle School is also piloting a theatre class that includes students with and without disabilities. The class, called Partner’s Theatre, is similar to Partner’s P.E. in that special education students are paired with general education students who serve as helpers and mentors to their partners.

“It’s an opportunity for these kids to perform in a place where they are completely accepted,” said Anton Bucher, theatre teacher at Pioneer Heritage. “Their partners reinforce what they’re doing and help them learn.”

Various skits, games and exercises help students from the functional academics classroom build confidence, communications skills and the ability to work with fellow students. 

“They’ve improved so much with their stage fright,” said PHMS seventh grader McKenzie Vilade. “I think I’m pretty positive and patient with them and I feel like they can talk to me.”

The class has had a tremendous impact on Karen Gamble’s son Grayson, who is one of three students with special needs who has taken on roles in the after school, extra-curricular plays at Pioneer Heritage through involvement in the class.

“He used to say no to everything you asked him,” Gamble said. “Now he tells people he’s an actor. He’s gained so much self-confidence and grown emotionally, really grown in every area.”

And, Gamble says her son has made friends, which he’s never had before.

“He was never even invited to a birthday party,” she said. “Now he has real friends who invite him to do things, who help him in the dressing room with his lines. He says this has been the best year of his life.”

It’s not just special education students who are benefitting from the programs. It’s rewarding and valuable for general education students, too.

“It’s a lot of fun,” agreed students Bella Fiaccone and Grace Jensen, who are involved with the Best Buddies organization at Cobb Middle School.

“It makes them happy, which makes me happy,” Fiaccone said.

They say they’ve enjoyed building relationships with students in Cobb’s structured learning classroom - both at school and at home. 

“We take them for walks around the school, do puzzles, read books or just swing in the classroom,” Jensen said. “We’ve gone to the park and to Braum’s. We’re planning to go painting.”

Teachers say students have taken an active leadership role in planning and organizing events and activities with their buddies.

“Most 13 year olds aren’t too worried about having friends with special needs,” said Jennifer Vilade, special education teacher and co-sponsor of the chapter at Cobb. “They stop into our classroom between classes to say hi to the kids. It’s really great to see the positive interaction.”

Last spring, Frisco ISD’s In-Home Parent Trainers hosted a parent training highlighting the benefits of friendships between children with special needs and their non-disabled peers. Samantha Moran, lead program manager with Best Buddies, was invited to present information on the organization.

Students, parents and staff members who attended the training were inspired to bring the program to Frisco ISD and since that time, five middle schools and three high schools have launched their own chapters of Best Buddies, matching more than 65 special needs students with peers at their schools. The chapter at Cobb was the very first at a middle school in the entire state of Texas.

“We’re really encouraged by the success of Best Buddies and Partner’s Theatre in Frisco ISD,” said Special Education Director Marcia Shannon. “They enhance our efforts to foster environments in our schools where all students feel comfortable and welcome and are empowered to make valuable contributions to their campus communities.”

And in the process, they’re helping to build a more socially aware and accepting campus climate for all students.

ABOUT BEST BUDDIES

Best Buddies® is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to establishing a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

Founded in 1989 by Anthony K. Shriver, Best Buddies is a vibrant, international organization that has grown from one original chapter to almost 1,900 middle school, high school, and college chapters worldwide. Best Buddies programs engage participants in each of the 50 United States, and over 50 countries around the world. Best Buddies’ eight formal programs — Middle Schools, High Schools, Colleges, Citizens, e-Buddies®, Jobs, Ambassadors, and Promoters — positively impact nearly 900,000 individuals with and without disabilities worldwide.

Learn more at www.bestbuddiestexas.org