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Lindsey Gorski’s shopping trips are frequently interrupted by middle schoolers coming up to say hi to her 14-year-old daughter, Kiley.
“She has more friends than I do, and I’ve lived here my whole life,” the Edina mom said.
It’s a scene you’d expect for a lovable, social eighth-grader like Kiley — except that she is non-verbal, so can’t respond to her friends using words.
Gorski knows the secret to her daughter’s popularity. Through the Peer Insights program at Edina’s South View Middle School, Kiley has made friends as well as strides
in her development.
In fact, the program has been the highlight of her daughter’s three years in middle school. “Being around peers is so important,” Gorski said. “These are friendships she couldn’t make on her own.”
The Peer Insights program began in 2010 with a simple idea: Why not send students with free time during the school day to volunteer in the school’s special education center?
So they came to the center, known as Aspire, and they played games, assisted with academic work and, best of all, provided opportunities for special needs students to practice basic social skills.
Special education teacher Jessica Cherne saw an immediate impact on all the kids involved — and saw the potential to grow the program.
“I knew our students had a lot to add to the community,” she said.
The Peer Insights Student Leadership Team was formally founded the following year.
Every year, more students express interest in becoming Peer Insights student leaders.
Despite the school’s ninth grade moving to Edina High School in the fall of 2017, involvement is still high with 50 general education students, who must apply and interview for the program.
Once accepted, students receive training in how to interact with students with disabilities, including how to use appropriate and respectful language.
They then join their peers with special needs in school-sponsored events, spend time in each other’s classrooms, walk together in the homecoming parade, enjoy community-based outings and even have a spring dance.
“There’s always going to be a little bit of awkwardness as they are figuring out the intricacies of our students,” Cherne said.
But that challenge soon gives way to true friendship.
Peer Insights students also participate in unified sports activities with their friends competing in events with Special Olympics Minnesota.
In 2015–2016, South View Middle School was one of just 20 schools in the state to be named one of Special Olympics Minnesota’s Champion Schools, thanks in part to the Peer Insights program.
Beyond the classroom
Brenna Pruden, whose 12-year-old daughter, Karlee, is part of Aspire, said the kids in the program are “dedicated, patient and kind.”
Peer Insights gives students who normally wouldn’t be with each other during the school day a chance to interact and make friends. Those friendships often grow beyond the confines of the academic calendar.
Karlee developed a special bond with a Peer Insights friend who now sometimes rides the bus home with Karlee to wait with her until her parents get home.
“It’s branched off into so much more beyond the school day,” Pruden said.
Karlee was disappointed to miss the school’s Winterfest party when she had surgery. Her friend from Peer Insights offered to bring ice cream and hang out with her to cheer her up.
Karlee’s family cheers on her Peer Insights friends in their extracurricular activities, such as participating in the Polar Plunge.
“They do so much for us,” Pruden said, “We like to give back.”
The student leadership initiative has had a ripple effect in the community: It’s not just the Peer Insights group getting to know the students with special needs, Pruden said.
After Karlee connected with one participant through the program, her friends — and friends of friends — got to know Karlee, too.
“Peer Insights is amazing during the school year,” Pruden said. “But it really does branch out to a much bigger impact in our lives.”
Special education teacher Jennie Schaefer has been impressed by how the program has set a tone at the school.
“It literally brings so much joy to my life to see our students sitting with the student body, having those experiences with typical middle school kids,” she said.
A new dynamic
Riley is a happy 13-year-old who loves being wheeled in races her family runs to raise money for Rett syndrome, which has affected her life since she was 11 months old.
Her parents, Erin and Mitch Bleske, are grateful she’s so healthy, despite not being able to talk, walk without assistance or use her hands. She laughs, giggles and cries to communicate.
“People who are around her get to know her,” her dad said. “But you have to have patience and dedicate the time.”
Fortunately, Peer Insights students are getting to know her, a fact that her family appreciates deeply.
Before middle school, Riley’s parents could count the number of birthday parties she’d been invited to on one hand. But these days the phone frequently rings with invitations for her.
“It’s a new dynamic for us as a family,” Mitch Bleske said. “It’s pretty special. We know that Riley isn’t going to have what some may call a normal life, but we do want her to have friends and be happy.”
In the schools
Although Peer Insights is unique to South View Middle School, Cherne said other schools are trying similar programs.
“We just went in our own direction with it,” she said, adding that it takes a really supportive administrative team and group of teachers.
For the most part, the response to the program has been positive, the special education teachers said. The only criticism it receives is backlash for sometimes taking students out of the general education classes to participate.
Cherne and Schaefer said they understand the importance of balancing Peer Insights activities with academic schedules.
But no one denies the success of the program.
Pruden said Karlee doesn’t need a paraprofessional to be with her all day like she did in elementary school.
And Bleske said it’s Peer Insights students who help Riley exercise by walking around the school halls — a role that used to be filled by an aide.
Gorski said Kiley’s strides in development have been made possible by the inspiration provided by her Peer Insights role models.
A judgement-free zone
The Peer Insights experience is equally valuable to students on both sides of the program. It gives general education students a place where they can be themselves, where the pressure to maintain a perfect image falls away.
“That’s the gift that our kids give,” Cherne said. “Middle school is so hard for all kids.”
A “safe space,” and “judgement free zone,” are what Peer Insights students have described finding amongst their friends with special needs, Cherne said.
“Deciding to join Peer Insights was one of the best decisions that I have ever made,” a former student wrote on an online blog. “Sometimes, if we were feeling overwhelmed or needed a break, we would be able to go down and hang out with the kids, which was an instant pick-me-up.”
All this is to say nothing of the valuable volunteer experience the general education kids acquire through the program.
And then, of course, there’s a ripple effect on the parents of the children with special needs.
Bleske said it makes him emotional: “To know that a student at that age has taken the time and appreciates and enjoys spending time with Riley — from a parent’s perspective, it just means a ton.”
And all those friendly middle school kids interrupting Gorski’s shopping trips don’t bother her in the slightest.
“It makes me proud when people know Kiley and say hi to her,” she said.
Abbie Burgess is a Twin Cities freelance writer and lifestyle blogger at thepinkpaperdoll.com.
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