Treven Gill climbs the stairs at Lawrence High School and eagerly explains what inclusion and connection mean to him.
“When you feel included, you don’t feel isolated,” Treven, a sophomore, said.
He breezes into the classroom and introduces his classmates as his brothers and sisters.
“We’re an IPS family,” Treven added, referring to the acronym used for the class known as interpersonal and communication skills.
His teacher, Susie Mička (pronounced Meech-ka), has taught IPS for 11 years. Originally, the yearlong course focused on helping students with autism develop social skills alongside their peers. Through the years, it’s developed into a team-building leadership course for all with opportunities to make friends, participate in public relations campaigns about inclusivity, take field trips together, and, for those who choose to, compete in extracurriculars like unified sports, a Special Olympics program for students of all abilities.
“It is an inclusive leadership class with the primary focus on creating an environment that is inclusive of everybody regardless of their ability levels,” Mička said.
Over the years, IPS has grown into an LHS tradition and a way of life.
Most students enroll in IPS for one to two years. Students submit an application for the program; there’s also an interview process. Much of the course focuses on project-based learning with student-led lessons.
“We typically have twice as many people apply as we can take,” Mička said.
Junior Nick Cordova watched his older sister find a voice in advocacy and thrive in IPS. Nick couldn’t wait to follow in her footsteps.
“This was one of her favorite classes and I really got to see what it was about and I knew that I was going to be in IPS my junior and senior year,” Nick said. “There was no question about it.”
IPS students are encouraged to meet outside of class. This weekend, some of the students will compete in a mud volleyball tournament together. The pandemic slowed down their regular Friday field trips, which Mička views as valuable learning opportunities for everyone.
Consider a walk to the donut shop, for example. While one student could hone skills ordering food from a menu, another student might learn a lesson in empathy by helping push a friend in a wheelchair down a cracked sidewalk, thus navigating obstacles they wouldn’t otherwise notice.
Inspired by Brené Brown’s leadership curriculum Dare to Lead and CASEL, an organization focused on academic social and emotional health, Mička hopes the class serves as a model of “universal design” where everyone in the class has their unique needs met.
Reflecting on the life skills gained through IPS, junior Nicole Lett said the group inspires others and promotes friendships. “People really become inseparable in this class.”
During a school year that began with remote learning and didn’t offer full-time, in-person classes for all students until March, the group has strived to remain connected.
Student-leaders planned safe meetups outdoors. They got their dogs together at the park, made a trip for ice cream and led projects in unified sports.
Senior Katherine Stineman said the moments spent socially outside class were probably the most meaningful times this school year.
Mička said it was very inspiring as a teacher to watch students care about each other so much.
“I think a whole lot of that had to do with the legacy of IPS and what they’ve heard about us doing and not wanting to miss out,” Mička said.
Senior Joy Song said being supportive of each other and helping others is important for the entire school to see.
That community outreach, senior Abdullah Ahmed said, “brings a level of normality to inclusion.”
“It’s not something you’d consciously have to think about. It’s more second nature. … That’s really what attracted me to it and led me to apply.”
And IPS certainly has made its mark outside the classroom. Many of the students wear T-shirts promoting inclusivity, and a walk down the halls shows brightly colored posters encouraging empathy. On YouTube, users can find numerous IPS inclusion videos, some of which sophomore Jackson Martin takes pride in having helped craft. He also enjoys the collaboration required to produce videos with a team.
The national campaign “Spread the Word to End the Word” focuses on stopping use of the derogatory and hurtful “R-word.” Last year, IPS helped produce a video about Spread the Word that gained traction on social media, leading other organizations to request permission to share the video. Mička said the campaign spawned conversations about inclusivity and ultimately changed the culture at LHS.
Mička noted there are a lot of reasons to celebrate this school year: She’s watched her students take risks and step up in ways she could have never imagined pre-pandemic. Sportswise, IPS student-athletes earned a silver and three gold medals in early May at the Kansas Special Olympics, and LHS was selected as a national Banner Unified Champion School last fall. Mička and her students will recognize those accomplishments with an end-of-the-year banquet.