MARQUETTE - Fitting in and making friends in school is no easy task, just ask any new student on the first day of school.
But it's an especially difficult endeavor for students with special needs, many of whom live quietly in the background of a school's social culture.
In Gwinn, a new program spearheaded by special education teacher Meghan McLeod is helping to combat that issue, pairing general education students with students with special needs in an effort to bring the entire student population together.
From left, sixth-grader Bryan Bleckler works on an art project with his peer, freshman Mark Smith. Bleckler said he loves the Peer 2 Peer program and sees his peers as his friends. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
At left, seventh-grader Caleb Gorsuch and his peer, freshman Dominic Mansini, get ready to return a serve from seventh-grader Ian Rosevear and his peer, fellow seventh-grader Josh Filizetti. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
Called "Peer 2 Peer," the program is run as an elective class for the peers - the general education students - who learn about different types of disabilities, from autism to cognitive impairment and others, and work with these types of students in their regular classrooms during the day.
The program acts as a facilitator between the students, teaching the peers how best to communicate with students with special needs and teaching those students it's safe to be social.
McLeod said much of the hesitancy to interact between the two groups is likely born of fear.
"I don't think it's that they don't like the students with special needs, I just think it's that they don't know what to do," McLeod said. "They don't know what to say, they're worried they're going to make a mistake, they're worried they're going to do the wrong thing and make it worse. ...
"If it's unknown, it's much harder to know how to interact. It's scarier. It's more intimidating. But as all these kids have shown, once you get to know these students, (you learn) how great they are, and how much they enjoy them as people."
Peer 2 Peer began last January - after McLeod completed training in the program at Grand Valley State University - with only nine students with special needs and a handful of peers working in the Gwinn Middle School.
The program was so successful, McLeod was given the green light to implement it fully in Gwinn High School as well.
It now has more than 50 participants, with most of the students with special needs in the middle school and peers through both schools.
"I have been very supported," McLeod said of the Gwinn Area Community Schools administration and teaching staff, who she said benefit from peers who understand when their partners need a break or a little help understanding the day's lesson.
"My whole life ... I've really believed that I want those individuals with special needs to be treated just as well as anyone else," said McLeod, who grew up with people with special needs in her family. "And I think the way to do that is through training."
Peer Ben Hafer, a junior, said he signed up thinking he'd be tutoring other students.
"I took it not really knowing what it was," Hafer said. "Then, when I got here, I was surprised and at first I was overwhelmed."
Several months into it, now Hafer can't seem to say enough about how much he loves the program.
"It's like you have these friends that are really unique," Hafer said. "To me, these kids, they don't have a mental disability. To me they're just different. They're like every other kid but they're different."
That attitude has also appeared to catch on with students throughout the building. After nearly a full year of the program, the students with special needs are more talkative, McLeod said, and some of the peers said the general education students are much more inclined to interact with them.
"A lot of time middle-schoolers can be huge jerks to kids like that," Hafer said. "But they really seem to have taken them in."
Owen Devooght, a senior, said now he sees the students saying hello and high-fiving each other in the hallways.
"It's just not for this class. It's just not room 144, (McLeod's classroom)," Devooght said.
The program has been incredibly influential on Devooght, who said he's considering going into therapy so he can work with kids in schools. With plans to attend Michigan State University after graduating from Gwinn, Devooght said he'll be looking for similar programs on campus where he can work with students with autism or other disabilities.
"They've taught me more than probably I've taught them," Devooght said of his Peer 2 Peer partners.
High school English teacher Suzanne Hindman said it was the best class in the building, and music teacher Dave Dagenais said he is proud of the change he sees in Gwinn's students.
"I've just seen so much healthy interaction, socialization and so many great things happening with this program," Dagenais said. "I'm serious. I'm really, really passionate about this."
Just down the hall from where Dagenais was speaking, some of that socializing was taking place as three Gwinn students participated in gym class with their peers, playing badminton in a gym full of kids. In an art room a few doors down, two more Gwinn students made a weaving with their peers, looking just as much like every other kid in the room as they threaded their needles through lines of yarn.
"This is hard," said sixth-grader Bryan Bleckler, as his peer, freshman Mark Smith, looked on.
McLeod, who often checks in on the peers as they work in regular classrooms throughout the building, stopped in the art room briefly. She asked Bleckler how he liked the program and the peers he spends time with.
"I love it," Bleckler said. "They're my friends."
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org