While middle school may be a difficult time for students physically, emotionally and socially, administrators at Los Cerros Middle School in Danville have succeeded in creating a campus of caring.
The school hosts three special needs classes -- one for students with mild learning disabilities, one for severe students and one county special education class -- that are regularly integrated with mainstream programs such as choir, art, cooking and physical education. As a result, students are exposed to a wide range of people and abilities and have become incredibly accepting.
"We are lucky…because students at Los Cerros are very welcoming, accepting of students with different learning disabilities. They think nothing of walking by a student with Down syndrome, it's part of the culture here," said Principal Phyllis Roach.
Recently, students participated in Spread the Word to End the R Word, a day of awareness that encourages people to stop using the word "retarded" as a slur or when referring to people who have intellectual disabilities. The increased awareness on campus resulted in several students requesting to act as teacher's aides in special education classes.
"The growth of those students, in their minds and their hearts, is phenomenal," Roach said, adding that the aide program aligns with the school's character education framework. "Any time you can connect a special education student with someone who cares, it's a beautiful thing on both sides."
"I think it's just really nice seeing how helpful (students) can be and how different some kids are. I think it's important to get a reality check to see what's really important," said core and yearbook teacher Tara Charley.
To further merge special needs and mainstream students, Los Cerros began partnering with Special Olympics of Northern California three years ago. Special needs students receive up to 24 weeks of training in three sports, while their non-disabled peers are encouraged to volunteer.
"At the same time, there's a whole movement toward making sure that there is a level of inclusion in special education students...teaching their non-disabled students about respect," said Special Olympics' Ilisa Kessler. "We are finding different ways non-disabled peers can be involved in Special Olympics by doing various fundraising for Special Olympics so athletes have opportunity to compete, or just being fans in the stands."
Los Cerros students were instrumental in organizing the annual Special Olympics basketball tournament for elementary students while several dozen participated in the Polar Plunge for Special Olympics in February. Students solicited sponsors for their icy dip into the San Francisco Bay and raised approximately $7,400 for SONC this year.
"I did (the Polar Plunge and tournament) because it's for a good cause and it makes me feel good," said eighth grader Nikki Amberg. "Los Cerros is special because people are willing to help each other."
Many of those daft divers attended a reading on Tuesday afternoon as Channel 5 news anchor Juliette Goodrich read from her book "I am Special Because I Smile." The book, which describes the upbeat attitudes of Special Olympics athletes, was presented at the school library to several special needs students and nearly twice as many non-disabled students who attended to show their support.
Goodrich wrote "I Smile" (her third book on local events and landmarks) after attending the Special Olympics ski race in Tahoe with her three children. After attending and emceeing events for nearly seven years, the Pleasanton resident asked her kids what particularly piqued their interest. Above all else, it was the athlete's smiles.
"They love the athletes and their energy," she said. "It's such a simple concept, but if you work with Special Olympics athletes or with special needs kids, they always have that light."
The children's book about Special Olympics athletes concludes with a double-page picture of a smile, which elicited the same in Los Cerros' special needs students.
"When they see that big page with the big smile, they can relate," Goodrich said, adding, "(Mainstream students) are the ones that give the biggest support and lead by example in helping each other out and letting other students know that their support is cool."
Goodrich will read "I Smile" at the Pleasanton Library in May and her book is available for purchase at the Special Olympics website.
Special needs students from Dougherty Valley, San Ramon Valley and Dublin high schools, and possible those from Los Cerros, will participate in the inaugural 2012 Bay Area Games track and field competition at Acalanes High School on May 1 against students from San Francisco and San Mateo counties. Athletes may compete in the standing long jump, softball, turbo javelin or tennis ball throw, as well as 50 or 100 meter runs.
Students interested in volunteering at the games are encouraged to call Heather Jones at 944-8801 ext. 232.