About 20 students mill about in the classroom, chatting with friends, practicing their dance moves, and jamming to the upbeat music booming through the loudspeaker. At first glance, it seems like a typical class of students; however, three of these students have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, which affects about one in every 88 children. Nevertheless, these three students don’t appear to be isolated from the group—in fact, their peers have brought them into the center of the room, laughing encouragingly as they dance together.
Since last November, there has been a major shift in dynamics within the dance class of Janelle Wilkinson, French and dance teacher. This transformation is due primarily to the efforts of the regular ed students in helping with the inclusion program run by Cynthia Bregenzer, a teacher in PHS’s autistic program, which takes a unique approach to integrating students with special ed needs into regular classrooms. The dance class, which meets fifth period, has been one of the first classes in which autistic students have been completely integrated with the regular ed students.
“[The autistic students] used to stay in the back of the classroom and not want to participate, but now they always want to dance with us,” said Maya Warner ’17, a student in the dance class. “They’re so outgoing and friendly and welcome us with big open arms. They’ve also helped choreograph one of our new dances, and they put in a lot of effort, so, in the end, the dance came out great!”
Along with the regular ed students, Wilkinson has also had to learn how to integrate the students from the inclusion program and provide the support that they need, mentioning that the special ed teachers were a great help in teaching her how to integrate the new students into her class. “Now it’s kind of second nature, and it’s a joy to have them,” said Wilkinson.
One of the first students to create a connection with the students in the inclusion program and take a major role in the transformation of the class was Imani Holliday ’16, according to Wilkinson.
“I help them, they really enjoy it, and they’re more with us now,” Holliday said. “They shouldn’t be left out, so I brought them into the group and taught them a dance and stuff that they know how to do. I met new friends, I taught them stuff, and they taught me stuff.”
Bregenzer said that the integration of autistic students into the dance class is part of an effort to expose them to life in the broader community.
“In the past, there have been experiences where we get the autistic kids out, but not to the extent that we are currently doing,” said Bregenzer about the inclusion program’s efforts to integrate autistic students in the high school, in addition to preparing them for the future. “We teach the kids to go out into the community and learn about how to be professional individuals, who would eventually hold a career.”
This academic year, the PHS administration has continued to expand the program to include special ed students in more classes. Contrary to the first semester, which included almost 30 students, the second semester class is much smaller, offering more opportunities for different types of students to interact.
“One of the pros of having a smaller class is really allowing students in the back to come to the front, which is nice,” said Wilkinson. “I think [the first semester] was overwhelming for everybody because I had never taught [autistic students] before, and they had never been in this kind of class before.”
As the academic year progressed, certain students like Holliday took it upon themselves to include the kids in the class routine, being affected personally as well. “As of right now, I want to be a special ed teacher because of my interaction with them,” Holliday said.
The inclusion has affected not only the students but also Wilkinson. “As the year progressed, [the autistic students] began to understand the sequence of the class, and I understand what their needs are,” she said. “I become a better teacher, the regular ed students see that there are all different types of students and that we can be accepting of all [of them], and the autistic students have the opportunity to build bonds with students they normally wouldn’t come in contact with. It’s a simple pleasure for them, and it becomes a pleasure for me.”
Although Wilkinson has played a major role in trying to include the students, she credits both the general environment of the school and Holliday for transforming the classroom.
“Since I started 18 years ago, PHS students [have been] very accepting of everyone, of all different types of students, regardless of race, or religion, or special needs, or height, or hair color. That’s one of the parts I find best about PHS,” said Wilkinson. “But for a lot of people, their world is just what’s in front of them, like a bubble. But Imani, she bridged the gap. She broke the barrier.”
Holliday has also volunteered her free period to interact with the autistic students after her experience with them in the dance class. “It’s absolutely fantastic when we get a student involved,” said Bregenzer. “It really helps if both parties are concerned, and Imani has been a perfect example because she has been able to be a leader for us.”
The experiences of the dance class have already been a big step in the integration of autistic students into regular ed classes, and Wilkinson has high hopes for the future.
“Although at the beginning I was uncertain, and all the students were uncertain, it has only become an extremely positive experience for everyone involved,” she said. “Hopefully I can serve as an example … Every class has its challenges, but if teachers are educated on how to work with these students, I think [that] putting these students into many different types of classroom settings would be beneficial to everybody.”