A Curriculum of Unity and Empathy

MHS fifth-graders Cash Lopez (from left), Abby White and Cadence Ni work together to build a penny-carrying boat in a STEM activity on the first day of school Aug. 15. Photos by Dawn Tull

Monterey Hills Elementary School is celebrating its 17th year of a co-teaching program that brings together fourth- and fifth-grade special education and general education students in classes throughout the day — serving to eradicate what teachers say is an alienating stigma of special education, as well as teach acceptance and build empathy.

In a program that general education teacher Dawn Tull runs with special day class teacher Jennifer Detterich, the two share students and combine their classes across all academic areas, including the arts and social skills activity groups called “friendship groups.”

“Our unique program that we’ve developed eliminates some of the stigmas of special education, as all students in both classes can gain acceptance and experience teamwork with each other,” said Tull.

“The kids quickly learn that we’re more alike than we are different, and that everyone has something positive to contribute.”

Alongside resource teacher Sharon Stearn, Tull helped to create the program when she first started at MHS. Even before she got into teaching around 34 years ago, Tull said, she had always wanted to work with special-needs students and ended up taking numerous classes in that vein while in school.

Although she ended up going the general education route, she never forgot the love she shared for the students, and soon found ways to include them in her classes at MHS.

As is tradition, the program kicked off the first day of classes Aug. 15 with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activity, in which both groups met and mingled, with the goal being to engineer penny-carrying boats from a variety of materials including pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, foil and string. The top constructed boat held over 100 pennies. The activity served as an ice-breaker for the classes.

Fifth-grader Emily Feng (from left), fourth-grader Lanah Kim, and fifth-grader Thea Russett plan out a shape for their boat.

“They’re all talking to each other,” said Tull. “They’re all one big group. There’s no, ‘Oh, what classroom are you from?’ stuff. It’s all one big cohesive group.”

Tull said that, in the past, she noticed some special-education students felt apart from the rest of the school and didn’t know how best to fit in with their other classmates. Even while the kids were sharing the playground during recess, Tull said she noticed that many special-ed students would isolate themselves.

With the shared classes, the students have the opportunity to collaborate, build friendships and see how they can combine their abilities to succeed at tasks. That pattern sets down solid life lessons for adulthood, according to Tull.

“It teaches them that some kids really have to persevere to complete a task and so other kids have an appreciation for that,” said Tull. “It teaches kids patience because we all have to get along with each other and all work with each other, so it goes way beyond the actual curriculum that we’re trying to teach.”

Tull and Detterich divide their classes so that Monday through Thursday, general education students have the opportunity to come into the special education classroom in a process known as “reverse inclusion.” Tull said the typical-special education model is called “mainstreaming,” in which students with special needs are generally only brought into general education classes.

Blending the classes enables the best of both models to benefit the students.

“I just hope for a community between our two classes where everyone gets along with one another, and we recognize that everyone’s brain is uniquely wired and that’s OK,” said Tull.