South Whidbey High School freshman Bardya Kashkooli always asks the same question whenever he spots seniors Hunter Bova, Greyson Clements, Lewis Pope and Ryan Wenzek.
“Do we have PE today?”
Kashkooli is referring to the school’s adaptive physical education class for special needs students, which the four seniors help lead under the supervision of special education teachers. It started as a leadership project, but transformed into a year- long initiative based on its success. By spring, they’ll have created a manual outlining how best to run the class so it can continue after they graduate.
“It’s cool seeing how excited they are,” Wenzek said. “It makes us feel good to know that we’re appreciated.”
“And that we’re making a difference in their lives,” Clements added.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, they meet with students from Monique Mangin’s class for an hour to play games, shoot hoops or get outside on the track. Bova, Clements, Pope and Wenzek are in charge of creating a schedule, lesson plans and setting up equipment.
They typically start with a light warmup then jump into activities designed to trigger the students’ motor skills and, most importantly, have fun.
“I think it takes their mind off of things and lets them kind of relax,” Wenzek said.
Adaptive physical education is not a new program, but it’s the first time students have organized the activities. Being led by their peers has a positive effect, Mangin said.
“I think the teachers are kind of always teaching and we’re the adults and these are their peers,” Mangin said. “I think that’s part of why they love it so much.”
Kashkooli can vouch for Mangin’s assessment.
“I always want to run around,” Kashkooli said.
The class averages about eight students. They have developmental disabilities, physical disabilities or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Daily activities fluctuate based on who can do what.
“It’s a challenge, but we do our best,” Bova said. “Every kid is different, so it’s hard to come up with things that are all inclusive that can help everyone, not just specific people.”
During the first semester, from September to January, they played kickball, soccer and dodgeball in the mat room.
Space, however, is currently limited because middle school and high school students are occupying gym space. When it’s raining, they use the hallway between the main gymnasium and mat room. If the weather is nice, they’ll go outside on the track or shoot hoops using cushioned balls.
They make the most of either situation.
“We’ll do bowling in the hallway or get hula hoops and have them throw balls through the hula hoops,” Bova said. “It’s been working out for us pretty well, I think.”
The maturity and enthusiasm of the boys impresses Principal John Patton on a weekly basis. He said it’s been mutually beneficial for all the students involved.
“The students that organized this program get as much out of being a teacher as our SPED (special education department) students get from participating,” Patton said.
Bova added that it’s bigger than just the class.
“It’s a way of getting them connected with the rest of the student body better than it did before,” he said. “We interact with them twice, sometimes three times a week. We see them in the hallways and half the time they’ll see us before we see them and they’ll come up and say hi and high five.”
“It’s really cool seeing them develop from the beginning of the year when we first started this until now. It’s a huge change.”
Pope said it works both ways. They had little interaction with special education students before starting the project.
“At the beginning of the year, you don’t really know how to act around them,” Pope said.
“It’s totally different when you get to know them,” Wenzek added.
Creating the manual won’t be easy, the boys said.
Because the activities change depending on the day, game or person, there is no clear cut approach.
“We can’t just say, ‘Play soccer and here are the rules we used,’” Bova said. “It’s a fluctuating thing.”
Wenzek said whoever takes it on next year needs to be committed for the long run and that it will take time to learn.
It’s been a humbling experience for the group.
“It’s cool building a bond and seeing them grow,” Wenzek said. “You don’t really see that if you don’t know them. It’s cool getting to know them better and it’s kind of just like our friends. You see them become different people.”