Inclusive Schools Week is a national movement to encourage schools to give special needs students opportunities to take classes and participate in activities alongside their general education peers.
At Miami-Dade County Public Schools, every school in the district follows a policy of maximum inclusion, but we had to choose one as an example so we settled on Southwest Senior High School in Kendall.
Let's start with the cheerleading team. Varsity cheerleaders mentor their special needs colleagues, girls who have Down's Syndrome, severe autism, and other conditions. Watching them perform a cheer routine, with the varsity members literally holding their hands, is watching the spirit of inclusion in action.
"We feel that everyone possesses a talent, and so by including them in all the activities and the different programs that we have, we give the students the opportunity to genuinely express their abilities," said Ann Jordan, the school's program specialist.
The dance teacher welcomes exceptional education students in her classes. We watched a rehearsal. There were more than two dozen kids on the stage, including several special needs students who were doing their best, having fun, and feeling part of something special.
"By having an inclusive school, inclusive community, everyone benefits, our students with and without disabilities," said Angie Torres, the school district's Director of Exceptional Student Education.
At Southwest High, they take inclusivity to another level with an elective class called the Peer Inclusion Team, known as the PIT Crew. It's the only program of its kind in the school district and it's brand-new. Students tutor special needs peers in their classes, in a variety of subjects.
On our visit, the PIT Crew was having a meeting to discuss issues that have come up. Teacher John Woodward, who founded the program, told his team not to limit themselves.
"Remember you're there to help the kids with disabilities in the classroom but we're also there, we can help assist anybody in the classroom," Woodward said to the class.
The PIT Crew students do it because they want to help.
"Oh it makes me feel great," said senior Madison Stewart. "I mean I don't do it for selfish reasons, I do it because they need it but if I can be that person who can help them then I'll be more than happy to do it."
"They're like a family member to me, because family members always want to help each other and stuff, help each other succeed so helping another student makes me feel very unique," explained Diomarr Vicente, also a senior.
The special needs students also operate the Smoothie Spot, a store they set up to cater to their peers. The kids pick out the fruit, they buy the ingredients, they do the inventory, and they learn to make change at the register.
They also make really good smoothies, I had one so I can say that with authority.
It's part of the effort to teach them life skills to make the ESE kids as independent as possible.
They're also teaching the general education students valuable lessons.
"Our students without disabilities, they learn patience, they learn how to work with others, empathy," Torres said.