Most high school students know peers with special needs, but few are friends with them.
A group of high school students in Tulsa decided they would do something about this situation by designing an inclusion program they named MESH. These students had been selected to participate in the Youth Philanthropy Initiative (YPI) supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. YPI challenges high school students to adopt an issue or topic affecting teens. The students apply as freshmen and sophomores from Tulsa area high schools.
They then spend the next three years working on their project in groups which are called “cohorts”. The first cohort started in 2005 and addressed teen depression. In following years, cohorts have chosen dating violence, counteracting media portrayals of beauty, and the importance of volunteerism. Cohort 7 decided to tackle the existing situation regarding students with special needs.
They were especially interested in creating inclusive social environments at school which would facilitate integrating students with special needs into the general education population. The program was piloted at Union Public Schools and is now operating at McLain and Memorial High Schools. The goals of MESH are to foster a better school environment and to improve the quality of the relationships between students with special needs and their peers. The primary objectives are to create an inclusive social environment for students with special needs in the larger student body, as well as educate the student body about students with special needs.
YPI selected TARC to continue the program and a new position, Student Inclusion Coordinator, was added at TARC to provide assistance to MESH participants as well as other efforts to encourage inclusion of students with special needs in other school activities and programs. Kristi Johnson was hired to fill this position and brings her gifted education experience with her in order to merge into schools and bring a diverse group of students together in the hopes of building a better and more inclusive future.
For schools to better understand their own environment, each school creates a steering committee, takes a school evaluation, and then identifies which parts of the MESH framework will work best for them. These relationships are not only important for students with special needs, but for students in general education as well. To cultivate these friendships, students are encouraged to join MESH.
People Together is a week-long disability awareness and sensitivity training program geared toward upper elementary school students, grades 2-5. The People Together program teaches children about various disabilities by allowing them to experience the disability through hands-on activities, interactive lessons, and engaging videos.
Students are taught how to use respectful language when talking about, and to someone who has a disability and the appropriate way to interact with those individuals. Not only are these students being taught about why some people look or act differently than they do, but they are also given a platform to ask questions about disabilities they might have been too hesitant to ask in a different setting. On the final day of People Together, TARC volunteers who have disabilities talk to the students and show them they are ordinary people with real lives, hobbies, and abilities.
People Together helps young students adopt an inclusive mindset that helps them engage with their peers who have disabilities. Once students without disabilities are able to get past their fear of people they perceive as “different”, they experience a major change in their behavior toward those around them.
For more information about the MESH and People Together programs, contact Kristi at 918-582-TARC (8272).