A shared mission of providing a safe and welcoming space for all brought together two Lawrence school communities Wednesday morning.
There was no shortage of willing volunteers among Quail Run’s K-5 students when visitors from Lawrence High School called for audience members’ participation. Hundreds of smiling students, some waving their hands excitedly, clamored for the opportunity.
Third grader Caitlin Bartlow showed her eagerness to participate.
“Is it my turn to be included?” Caitlin asked Alex Smith, an autism specialized classroom teacher at Quail Run.
Caitlin helped form a human “pretzel” by holding onto her neighbors. With faculty and hundreds of peers cheering them on, students from age 5 to their late teens demonstrated through teamwork that each person played a role in their pretzel’s successful untangling.
Students from LHS’ IPS program led the activities to kick off National Developmental Disability Awareness Month, which began in March 1987. IPS gives teens of all abilities an opportunity to develop leadership skills both inside and outside the classroom. Read more about IPS in this article.
Susie Mička, LHS teacher and IPS sponsor, kicked off the assembly with a message for Quail Run students. Both schools have earned designation as Unified Champion Schools through Special Olympics.
“We have a whole bunch of high school students that have come here to see you today,” Mička said. “They learned that they have more fun when they include everybody. They learned that they are more successful when they include everybody, and they learned that it’s really important to make sure that everybody feels safe and happy.”
Designation as Unified Champion Schools makes LHS and Quail Run eligible to receive funding for activities promoting inclusion, Smith explained. She called the assembly Quail Run’s first “big Special Olympics event.”
Aiming for a blue-out, attendees sported blue to bring awareness to their inclusion efforts. Among the themed T-shirt messages were “Everyone needs to be heard / Everyone needs to be included / Everyone needs to include” and “Inclusion is the new cool.”
Those messages resonated with fourth grader Savannah Patton, who participated in the pretzel puzzle.
“It was fun because you get to include everybody and you get to work out a problem and solve it all together,” Savannah said.
She compared it to swinging on a tire swing — something that she enjoys on her own but likes more when someone helps push. She said the assembly taught her that those who include others when they’re young then “grow up to include other people.”
LHS junior Charlotte Steineman, a first-year IPS student, said the Quail Run students seemed receptive to the messages shared by the teens.
“I think that we were received a lot better than I expected at an elementary school, honestly,” Charlotte said. “I didn’t expect to command the attention that well, and they really listened, which was pretty surprising.”
The focus on inclusivity in March aligns with Quail Run’s character expectations of positive, productive and safe, said Smith, now in her fifth year of teaching at the school.
Smith shared her hope that Quail Run would eventually form a club that focused on inclusion and community service.
“Especially our older kids, they might pitch why they should be in our Special Olympics Club,” Smith said. “I really like the idea of these kids working together to even contribute to our community — making cards for some of our patients in hospitals or working together to do a fundraiser for the school, so just kind of making it bigger than just the school day.”
Quail Run Principal James Polk said the school has two autism specialized classrooms. Smith and Holly Mullen collaborate with classroom teachers to help make all students feel they’re part of the Quail Run community.
“What we’re always trying to do is work on how we can make our community more open and understanding,” Polk said. “That translates to our students, being open-minded and flexible, and being understanding citizens when they grow up.”
‘Inclusivity is inclusivity is inclusivity’
The popularity of the IPS and Unified Sports programs continue to grow and evolve at LHS, according to Mička. In February, supporters raised more than $8,000 for Special Olympics through the annual polar plunge.
A Special Olympics marketing campaign aimed at ending use of the hurtful R-word remains important, Mička said, but the emphasis has shifted from more of a “don’t do this” approach to an ask to include all. The theme for 2023 is Going All In(clusive).
Mička said that means the IPS program isn’t just emphasizing inclusion of those with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Mička has taught IPS for 13 years. She said each year she receives inquiries from parents and guardians expressing surprise that a lesson or activity promoted inclusion beyond disabilities. She cited gender and LGBTQ+ inclusivity as examples.
“Inclusivity is inclusivity is inclusivity,” Mička said firmly, noting that recent antisemitic messages appearing at LHS have demonstrated not everyone at the school values inclusion.
In response to vandalism and discriminatory messages, LHS staff and students recently produced a video, “This is Chesty’s House.” It encourages the school community to celebrate its diversity, brainstorm solutions and “reclaim our school.”
“Our uniqueness unites us,” students declare in the video.
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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.
Molly Adams (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a Haskell alum with a passion for photojournalism. She strives to create authentic images that portray the true lives of Lawrence community members.
She can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com, and her public work can be found on her website. Check out more of her work for the Times here.