LINCOLN PARK, Mich. (WXYZ) — A new program at an elementary school in Lincoln Park is all about inclusion. The peer-to-peer program, which launched this month, pairs 5th-grade general education students with students with autism.
The program helps to break down barriers while helping students with disabilities become more independent.
"It's quite great, actually. Since I have experience with autism since my little brother and two cousins have it, I’m quite familiar with it. So, when my teacher said there was this program going on, I grabbed one of the cards and decided to sign up," said 5th-grade student Jaidyn Zub.
The general education 5th-grade students are paired with special education students three days a week. Zub says this is their first week getting to hang out with their new friends on the playground and in the lunchroom.
Students in the program wore bright orange t-shirts Friday afternoon with lanyards around their necks. On the lanyard, students had what they call a "core board" which has pictures of familiar items and basic sign language. Students use the card to help communicate with students who are nonverbal.
5th-grade student Dean Yates says he wanted to join the program to lend a helping hand to his fellow students.
"So, the kids with autism know how to do stuff and have friends that could help them with learning and other stuff," said Yates.
Friday, a circle of students in the program gathered on the blacktop outside of their school building playing Duck, Duck, Goose. Staff who help facilitate the program say its impact reaches far beyond the playground.
"We had a unique opportunity with the creation of a new classroom for students who have mild to moderate autism. And so with that program just started at Lafayette this year, we had a unique opportunity to support that program and also teach many of our students at Lafayette about autism," said Michael Lynch who is a Behavior Specialist with Lincoln Park Schools.
Lynch helped to spearhead the peer-to-peer program at Lafayette.
"What we’ve found is that students with autism, they learn best through visual and modeling supports and there’s no better visual or model support than our own students," said Lynch.
While the program is new to Lafayette Elementary, it's been an important initiative for the district for years. The program is currently in five different buildings across the district. Nicole Chubb who is the Executive Director of Special Education for the district says there are more than 100 peer-to-peer volunteers district-wide.
"I think sometimes the nondisabled peers get more out of it than the students with the disabilities," said Chubb. "It allows our peers to learn more about some of our students who are different than them. So, it teaches them about helping and supporting students with disabilities. It allows them to build relationships with the students they might not have had an opportunity to interact with."
The district says the program has been so popular, there’s already a waitlist to participate.
" I feel very proud. I feel our students at Lafayette are very welcoming of all individuals. It’s been a wonderful thing to see so many students jump in and want to be a part of this program," said Lafayette Elementary Assistant Principal Alison Lukitsch.
Principal Steve Massengill says the program is a direct reflection of the always-improving nature of education.
"25, 30 years ago we taught to the middle. We didn’t pay as much attention to kids on the outside or the extremes. Now we tailor our education to the needs of the one," said Massengill.
Massengill says he hopes students in the program are learning independence, leadership, and how to advocate for one another, things can carry into adulthood.
"This peer-to-peer program is just another opportunity that allows our students to serve and really be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves," said Massengill.