For the past two years, incoming sixth-graders at Bradley Middle School have participated in assemblies to inform them about students with special-needs, particularly students with autism. They participate in discussions and simulations to better understand the different ways autistic students learn, act and socialize. Then they have the opportunity to join Becker’s Buddies, a peer mentoring program, which brings non-autistic students together with an autistic peer in the Exceptional Children’s classroom.
Michelle Becker, an Exceptional Children’s teacher, began the program at Bradley because of her experience in a former county. Two students approached her and wanted to know how to interact with her special-needs students. So, she taught them. Then those students began to volunteer in her classroom.
“I noticed my students seemed happier, more eager to learn and were learning on a deeper level,” said Becker. “The friendships that were formed were about learning and accepting one another.”
Melanie Kennedy, a ninth-grader at Hough High and former Bradley Middle student, said participating in the program made a huge impact on her life. She wanted to become a Veterinarian but now plans to pursue a career in special education. She continues to mentor Becker’s students on Fridays when she gets out of school and hopes to start a similar program at Hough.
“I have learned so much from the students I mentor. They teach me valuable lessons every day,” said Melanie. “They don’t judge me. They accept me for who I am and they make me want to be a better person. I aspire to be like them.”
Her words resonated with Kelli Fitzgibbons, the parent of an autistic student at Bradley.
“I still remember the day Ryleigh came home and told me she made a friend at school. She had never said that before. It is hard to make friends when your peers don’t understand why you do or say certain things,” said Fitzgibbons. “I love the program because the students are her friends and they are genuinely interested in my child’s well-being.”
Following in her sisters footsteps, eighth-grader Cassidy Kennedy has also become a peer mentor.
“I saw the joy that my sister had when she would come home and talk about helping in Ms. Becker’s classroom,” said Cassidy. “It made me want to be a part of it. Now I know why she loves it so much. The students are amazing people.”
Becker acknowledges that the program would not work without the support of administration and her fellow teachers.
“I have paired up with some teachers to work out when their students can come to my classroom,” said Becker. “It can be challenging, but the student-mentors know they must complete their work and keep their grades up in order to continue in the program.”
Becker hopes the program will continue to flourish and inspire students, teachers and administrators at Bradley and elsewhere.