Small Name, Big Program

RED OAK, TX — Partner PE teams up mainstream students with students who have special needs in a peer-mentored physical education program. The program was new to Red Oak High School this year, but it’s the realization of a longtime dream for Coach Hope Porter. “It’s been a long process, but we finally got it here, and I’m excited,” Coach Porter confessed.

In the last few years, the right combination of instructors and administrators has fallen into place. Special Education Director Rachel Kistner, Red Oak High School Principal Kevin Freels, Coach Porter, Coach Ava Towner and teachers, Jessica Hickman and Richard Caldwell have all had a hand in adding Partner PE to the curriculum.

The process began about 14 years ago when Coach Porter first came to Red Oak. She was so passionate about starting a PE program designed specifically for students with special needs that she even offered to give up her conference period to teach the class. “I was seeing the kids come into the conventional PE classroom setting and not get anything out of it. So it pulled at my heart, and I wanted them to be comfortable being involved and trying new things,” Coach Porter admitted. Her request for a special class was tabled because administrators didn’t think it would work logistically.

A few years later when Coach Porter discovered the Partner PE program where mainstream students team with students with special needs, she started questioning again, “Can we do this?” When Principal Freels came to Red Oak, things finally began falling into place. He was familiar with the program because his daughter had applied to be part of Partner PE in Midlothian. Coach Porter and some other teachers and administrative personnel attended a Partner PE training session and came back very excited.

When Ms. Hickman was hired as a special education instructor for the 2010-11 school year, the idea gained even more momentum. She was familiar with Partner PE, so it was a natural fit. “It had just always been part of the curriculum everywhere I had taught,” Ms. Hickman explained.

Coach Porter and Ms. Hickman took the Partner PE proposal to Rachel Kistner, who was very enthusiastic about the possibilities the program offered. She spoke with high school administrators and received the go-ahead to add Partner PE to the ROHS curriculum for the 2011-12 school year.

“Students who want to volunteer fill out a short application and explain why they want to be part of the program. It does take a special kid to be in here and be hands-on with our students with

special needs,” Coach Porter said. The mentors also go through a two-week training period before they start working with their partners. Most of the students were assigned to their partners, but a couple requested partners they already knew. Originally, the plan was to change partners every six weeks, but that didn’t happen. “The kids didn’t want to change partners, they came to me and said, ‘We don’t want to do that. We want to keep the partner we have.’ So we did it that way,” Coach Porter said.

Although a general routine helps the students with special needs know what to expect when they hit the gym, there’s enough flexibility to keep things interesting. Sometimes the partners work one-on-one at circuit activity stations and sometimes various pairs team up to play a game like T-ball or kickball.

Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the program is the depth of the relationships that have developed in this peer/mentor environment. The general education students go out of their way to seek opportunities to be with their partners before school, after lunch or whenever they have a little free time. “We knew during the class, there would be interaction, but we could never have imagined we would see the partners all the time outside of PE,” Ms. Hickman said.

“They’re always thinking of things to do with their partners,” elaborated Coach Porter. “They brought them to a volleyball game. They planned a Valentine’s Day celebration. They celebrate birthdays. Everybody brings something and wears party hats.”

The Partner PE program has made a difference for everyone who participated. The students with special needs now look forward to PE and working on improving their motor skills, balance, coordination and muscle tone. Ms. Hickman is also excited about an unexpected bonus: the improvement of independent social skills. “When we walk into the gym, they’re like, ‘See you later. I got things to do with my friends.’ The peer relationships bring out typical teenage behavior. One of the things we strive for in special education is that social connection. The partners bring it out naturally, where we, as instructors, have to prompt it.”

Coach Porter has seen a difference as well. The students with special needs were often intimidated by a conventional PE class, but they’re eager to participate in the partners setting. At the beginning of the school year, the general education students were a little timid about taking charge, but by midyear were more independent and comfortable with their partners and required much less hands- on assistance from adults. “Both groups have really excelled in this class,” Coach Porter stated.

Partner PE requires quite a few people to make it a success. In addition to the general education student mentors, Coach Porter and Ms. Hickman; special education instructor, Richard Caldwell; Adaptive PE Coach Ava Towner and support staff, Amy Laubach, Amanda Martin, Janine Walker and Deborah Castle all participate. Everyone agrees the benefits of the program are well worth the effort.

What’s in store for the future? One idea is to offer more training throughout the year for the mentors so they could plan and lead lessons for the entire class. “I’ll be looking for new and innovative things to do. I want to give the kids as much in this class as I can. I’ll be looking for different avenues and different ways to teach things,” Coach Porter said. She’d also like to see the program expand to include a second class.

Ms. Hickman is also very interested in expanding the program. Her dream is for the program to provide a sense of connectivity and continuity over their entire scholastic career for students with special needs. She envisions a natural, complementary progression from elementary school through graduation.

Whatever direction Partner PE takes in the Red Oak ISD, one thing is sure — it’ll be worthwhile. “It’s been really fun,” Coach Porter said. “It’s a rewarding class, definitely!”

Written by Katie Almond.