Orion Baldwin and his classmates brainstormed 1970s-themed homecoming float ideas during their interpersonal skills class early Monday. The Lawrence High senior took advantage of an opening to talk about the “most iconic” 1978 horror film, “Halloween.” Like many teens, he loves scary movies.
When he finished, Orion pivoted to his wheelchair — a subject that sets him apart from most of his peers. He explained how it could switch modes between manual and power, which comes in handy while navigating the long pathways and ramps at LHS.
“I’m one of the most well-known people around here, actually,” Orion said.“I love the fact that we can include people of all kinds because I literally show off differences.”
Orion said he felt included as soon as he arrived at LHS three years ago. What has changed since, he said, was how much bigger the school felt after undergoing renovations. He called it a “wheelchair-friendly” campus.
Though architects and administrators can take credit for an inclusive floor plan, students and building staff largely contribute to a school’s culture and whether students feel accepted on a deeper social-emotional level. That’s where interpersonal skills, or IPS, comes in.
What started out as a course to help students with autism practice social skills alongside their peers, IPS has grown into a team-building leadership class for all. Susie Mička has taught the course for 13 years.
Mička and her students promote inclusivity throughout the school community, socialize, take field trips, and explore and create together. Some students also choose to participate in extracurriculars like unified sports, a Special Olympics program for students of all abilities.
“The idea was to help students who had a hard time fitting in learn how to fit in. Since then, we’ve changed our thought and messaging around that. It’s not necessarily about changing anyone. It’s about including everyone and accepting, loving everyone for who they are and what they bring to the table,” Mička said.
IPS will be under the bright lights Wednesday, Sept. 14 when a Special Olympics film crew visits Lawrence High. Representatives will interact with students and staff and gather footage for a marketing campaign focusing on the inclusion of all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
One of IPS’ goals in recent years has been to end use of the derogatory and hurtful “R word.” Videos produced at LHS about the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign, including this one by Mia Robinson in 2020, caught the organization’s attention.
“LHS has done an incredible job of this campaign over the years and even made their own videos that have gone viral and been used by Special Olympics North America (SONA), International and Kansas,” wrote Taylor Obersteadt, director of inclusion for Special Olympics Kansas.
She said those videos played a part in SONA’s decision to visit LHS. Special Olympics representatives plan to meet with Principal Jessica Bassett, and IPS alum Katherine Stineman (now a paraprofessional) will help moderate a student panel about inclusion.
LHS was among several schools chosen for the honor. The commitment of student-leaders to the program also contributed to the selection. Seniors Treven Gill and Jack Ritter serve on the Special Olympics Kansas Youth Activation Committee, a student-led state group.
“Both are passionate about our movement and will be great hosts, along with their teacher, Susie,” Obersteadt said.
This year, Mička teaches three sections of the yearlong course, which involves an application and interview process. Nearly 70 students are enrolled.
A recent field trip to Panera Bread scored high for junior Larissa Powers.
“We do amazing stuff, like we went to breakfast.”
Junior Aubrey Augustine grinned as she talked about the experiences she’s already shared with her classmates during the first few weeks of IPS.
“It’s just a very safe environment and a great way to start the morning.”