March is National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, and the goal of this year's campaign is to highlight the ways in which people with and without developmental disabilities come together and work side by side to form strong communities. Nowhere is that strength more apparent than at Audubon Elementary School in Foster City.
Audubon is one of the school sites in San Mateo County that houses Integrated Special Day Classes provided by the San Mateo County Office of Education special education services. These classes serve students with severe, multiple disabilities; orthopedic, hearing, or visual impairments; and autism.
When Teena Topoian, one of SMCOE’s special education teachers, moved to the Audubon site, she came with hopes of developing opportunities for her students to be included in the general education program. She immediately started looking for Audubon teachers who would support her efforts. "Our [special education] classroom started last year," said Ms. Topoian. "Another teacher introduced me to Ms. Lang, and she was really welcoming."
Jill Lang is a first-grade teacher at Audubon, and her classroom is filled with two things: student art and terrariums. After inviting Ms. Topoian's students to come see their class pets, she asked if they wanted to participate in her students' story time. "We started visiting Jill's class for reading, and then we scheduled time with other teachers so all our students could participate," said Ms. Topoian. And the "Reading Buddies" program at Audubon was born.
Through the program, Ms. Topoian's students, who often use wheelchairs or walkers, get a chance to move around the campus and interact with students in other classrooms. The students in special education are each paired with a general education partner and adult aid to help with reading. The general education students read aloud, showing their buddies pictures from the book, and their buddies engage in every way they can—pointing to body parts mentioned in the book or laughing at the illustrations. Even students who are non-verbal get to participate, as they are able to activate a switch that encourages their partner to turn the page.
Ms. Lang's students get a lot out of it, too. "Readers who need more support or have trouble focusing get to practice their reading in a smaller setting and can receive support from the instructional aid," Ms. Lang said. "And the kids really love getting to know the students in special education. If one of Teena's students is absent, my students really worry. "
Today, the Reading Buddies program has blossomed into something much bigger. Ms. Topoian's students join Ms. Lang every Tuesday for music. They also get to try their hands at physical education, something Ms. Lang says teaches her students a lot of patience: "They get to experience problem solving and working together to try to adapt the things they're doing in P.E." Ms. Lang's class even invited Ms. Topoian's students to be in their class play last year—an experience they'll be repeating this spring.
"This is a win-win for all our students," Ms. Lang said. "It isn't just about special education; every class has kids with different abilities, with special needs. Everyone is a whole person."