Published in the June 22, 2016 edition
By DAN TOMASELLO
LYNNFIELD — Huckleberry Hill School’s second grade buddy program with the Kevin O’Grady School made a tremendous impact on students from both schools this year, Huckleberry Hill Principal Brian Bemiss told the School Committee last week.
The Kevin O’Grady School is a separate special education program run through the Northshore Education Consortium (NEC) collaborative. The school works with students’ ages 3-22 who have different types of disabilities including complex medical needs, physical disabilities, autism, intellectual disabilities and visual and hearing impairments.
Bemiss said he received an e-mail from Kevin O’Grady School teacher Stephanie Couillard last summer about the school’s interest in developing a buddy program with Huckleberry Hill this year.
“I had no idea what it was going to look like and how we were going to do it and I don’t know if Stephanie did either,” said Bemiss. “When I shared it with the second grade staff, they were thrilled and wanted to get involved.”
Couillard echoed Bemiss’ sentiment.
“We wanted to partner with an elementary school in a way that would benefit both schools,” said Couillard.
Couillard said her and speech-language pathologist Sarah Rowe’s classroom contains seven students “who have a variety of special needs.” She said six students are unable to speak and have use to other forms of communication to speak. She said five students are in wheelchairs and are unable to walk. She also said there are students who have visual, hearing and cognitive impairments.
“While we are able to provide a lot of accommodations for them, the one thing Sarah and I were not able to provide was the opportunity for them to interact with other typically developing kids their own age,” said Couillard.
Bemiss said Huckleberry Hill second grade teacher Kathleen DeRosa worked with Couillard and Rowe to organize the logistics to bring the Kevin O’Grady students to Huckleberry Hill every Thursday.
“It was not easy,” said Bemiss.
“It took a village to get to the Huckleberry Hill School,” added Couillard. “We brought our entire classroom team including paraprofessionals, therapists, a nurse and had to use two buses. We brought everything but the kitchen sink.”
Couillard said Huckleberry Hill second graders “were very patient and were very eager to meet our kids.” She also said the second graders went out of their way to make the Kevin O’Grady students feel comfortable and right at home.
“The kids were always welcoming,” added Rowe.
Rowe and Couillard showed the school board a series of videos of Huckleberry Hill second graders introducing the Kevin O’Grady students.
“Just because someone doesn’t look the same as you and your friends doesn’t mean they can’t do some of the things you can do,” said a boy from Huckleberry Hill discussing his buddy in one of the videos.
A second grader named Colin discussed his buddy, Wisdom. He said both he and Wisdom like bubbles. Colin also said Wisdom “smiles when he is happy and pushes his button when he wants something.”
A second grade girl named Chloe Cieslewicz discussed her buddy McKenna.
“The way she communicates is she uses Sign Language,” said Chloe. “What I like about her is she is just like us and we have to treat her the exact same way.”
Rowe said the two schools developed joint lessons over the course of the school year.
“We wanted the kids to understand our kids better,” said Rowe. “We did a number of lessons about this is how we speak, this is how we play and this is how we move. We had kids do activities where they couldn’t speak at all and could only speak the same way their buddies spoke. We did some activities where we had kids blindfolded so students could experience what art is like when your blind and you can’t see the pictures you are making.”
Couillard said her students learned group skills from their Huckleberry Hill peers and also learned to develop trust.
DeRosa said the Huckleberry Hill students “developed an appreciation and acceptance of individual differences” and “empathy and compassion.”
“When we started this program, we didn’t know we would get so much out of it,” said DeRosa. “Our students benefited an incredible amount from this and so did the teachers. They wanted to be involved and understood (the Kevin O’Grady kids) are just like us but just learn differently. It was such an amazing program for us.”
Additionally, DeRosa said the students from both schools formed lasting friendships and developed self-confidence. Couillard noted the last day of the program was an emotional day for both the Huckleberry Hill and Kevin O’Grady students.
Bemiss thanked the Huckleberry Hill second graders for working with the Kevin O’Grady students this year.
“They are a phenomenal group of kids,” said Bemiss. “And I want to thank the Kevin O’Grady kids as well. The impact the buddies have had on Huckleberry Hill is immeasurable. They inspired us and continue to inspire us. We are looking forward to continuing the program in the future. I know it’s an experience the students will never forget.”
“It gave our kids opportunities that they never would have had,” said Couillard. “Our kids got to experience a gym for the first time. They got to be around friends and develop friendships. It was amazing.”
School Committee member Jamie Hayman thanked Bemiss, DeRosa, Couillard and Rowe for establishing the buddy program.
“I am just in awe of what I see here,” said Hayman. “It’s a special thing to be able to bring students in and get them into this type of environment. And being able to teach them compassion and understanding at such a young age is a gift that they will take with them for the rest of their lives. It’s a win-win for everyone.”