A special program in Gwinn Area Community Schools is making it easier for students in the general population to understand students with special needs - and it seems to be working.
Peer 2 Peer involves an elective class that allows peers, or general-education students, to work with these students, thereby helping them learn about disabilities such as autism and cognitive impairment.
The effort works both ways, as the students better understand each other and the entire student population is brought together.
That's not always the easiest thing to accomplish, especially when you're talking about kids in their teen years. After all, getting out of a social comfort zone is difficult for many adults.
The Gwinn program teaches peers how to communicate with special-needs students, who in turn learn it's OK to socially interact with them.
That assimilation can come in the form of sharing activities in the same gym or art class.
Gwinn special education teacher Meghan McCleod, who pairs the students, said once peers get to know the other students, they discover what great people they are and enjoy their company.
Without that interaction, that acceptance most likely would be much harder - something that could well be carried beyond high school and into the "real world."
Not only does Peer 2 Peer give students in the general population a better appreciation of special-needs students, who often blend into the background in a school's day-to-day life, it reportedly has resulted in special-needs kids being more open and talkative.
The results don't stop after the activities end. Students are seen greeting and even high-fiving each other in the hallway.
The Gwinn program now has more than 50 participants, with special-needs students in the middle school and peers in both schools. To use the "pay it forward" scenario, those students, it is hoped, will help others they meet throughout life welcome people of all abilities.
McCleod said she wants individuals with special needs to be treated just as well as anybody else.
The Peer 2 Peer program is a good start.