Hard lessons through fun

Published 5:50 pm Saturday, December 10, 2011

Kids taking part in the Youth Frontiers program dance Friday morning at St. Olaf Lutheran Church. - Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Eighth-graders got a hard lesson Friday.

It may have been fun and games at St. Olaf Lutheran Church, but Ellis Middle School students were learning about respect and courage. They shared secrets with one another, talked about their friends, and opened up. In other words, they bonded as a class.

“It’s a level playing field,” said Lea Oelfke, Ellis guidance counselor. Oelfke said the different environment encouraged students to discuss issues in healthy ways without feeling judged.

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This year marks the fifth-annual Youth Frontiers retreat for Austin Public School students. While eighth-graders learn about courage in the fall, ninth-graders learn about respect in the spring. In both settings, the students do more than learn to do the right thing: They come together in a social setting.

The retreat comes as Austin celebrates Inclusive Schools Week. The week-long event is celebrated every year during the first full week of December and acknowledges educational progress in providing schooling for everyone regardless of class.

The week, which the Austin Public School board formally acknowledged at its November meeting, fits in well with the district’s recent initiatives. Austin is looking at more ways to curb bullying and promote a better school atmosphere, whether through speakers like the Scary Guy or systemic programs like the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program at Ellis.

PBIS is a program designed to improve a school atmosphere through small lessons and exercises. Sixth-graders started using PBIS at the beginning of this year when staff taught students how to properly walk through crowded halls. Though Ellis hallways have signs like “Keep to the right” and tape marking hall lanes, staff say sixth-graders have adapted well.

Ellis also has a school climate committee where students from all backgrounds discuss ways to improve the school with teachers and staff.

District officials are working to improve school climate in other ways. Equity teams and success coaches are working to create school projects at each Austin school which would involve students. That could be anything from book making to identity projects, according to integration coordinator Kristi Beckman

“There’s a lot happening,” she said.

Special education students will be involved in a lot more social school functions if the Special Education Advisory Committee’s ideas come to fruition. Aside from putting on special ed dances and increasing support for prom, special needs staff are researching how to create more peer settings for general ed and special ed students. One possibility is the creation of a buddy club which partners students in activities from playing games to reading books. Nothing is set in stone as special services officials are looking into different programs.

“We’d like to look at establishing more peer-mediated interventions with some social skills,” said special services director Sherri Willrodt. “That’s an area we want to continue to grow in.”

In addition, SEAC will look at growing special ed student participation in after school activities, according to Aaron DeVries, SEAC chairman.

“That’s kind of an ongoing thing,” he said. “We had actually approached, gone down that path a couple years ago. This year there seems to be a better chance of something happening.”