Links Program Dispels the Unknown, Fosters Friendship

High school isn’t always easy for students doing their best to fit in, said Caitlyn Dukesherer, a senior at Caledonia Community schools who is also a Links student mentor. Links is a program that pairs a general education student with a special needs student peer to help them overcome this challenge.

“All of us in high school go through struggles of trying to find our way,” said Caitlyn. “Many of the (general education) students don’t really understand what (special needs) students go through. All the school needs is one person to go out of the way and make a difference.”

Caitlyn started forging a difference last school year as a junior. Currently, she is among 70 high school students referred to as a “link” who have been matched with about 15 students with disabilities known as “peers.”  Together, they are part of a support class dubbed “Links” which matches general education students with their special needs counterparts to help foster an inclusive, welcoming environment for Caledonia High School’s special needs students. Caledonia Middle School has a similar initiative known as the Peer-to-Peer program.

The Links program goals are straightforward. Links students seek to model and reinforce socialization and independence skills for peer students they are partners with. But the forward-thinking goals don’t stop there.

Any freshmen through senior general education student can apply to serve as a link, but earning a grade isn’t effortlessly achieved.

During a typical school week, the link student is required to complete weekly disability awareness lessons via an online classroom. By doing so, link students learn more about the causes and prevalence of many common disabilities, techniques for working with individuals with disabilities, and developing a social climate of acceptance and inclusion.

A link student’s grade is based on daily attendance, assignments, quizzes and a final exam. They also participate in assigned meetings, required assignments, class blog entries, positive interactions with staff and students. They are expected to be a good role model, mentor, and spend time with and interact with their assigned peer.

Link students receive half a credit toward graduation. They are required to attend bi-weekly case conferences to discuss the progress of their peer student, and contribute ideas on how to more effectively help the peer student progress toward his/her goals.

“The majority of the students who enroll are looking for ways they can give back to their school and make connections with students who aren’t normally a part of their peer groups,” said Joe Lienesch, special education teacher consultant.

“It’s a great opportunity to be educated, to learn about disabilities and get a better understanding,” said Jenny Rodgers, a high school special education teacher. “There’s so much common ground between them (a link and a peer). The unknown is scary to some people. I love to see kids rise above and step out of their comfort zone.”

Ryan Vanderwall and Kayla McFadden are a Peer and a Link, respectively

Links’ Goals are Varied

Link students are usually assigned to a peer a minimum of one class period per day, as well as interacting with their peer during the entire school day. They may help the student study for a test, break an assignment down into smaller steps to help them grasp the fundamentals, show them useful note-taking tips, read a textbook to them, or take them down to the media center to help them effectively interact within a small group. Volunteers also assist their peer student in such things as appropriate classroom behavior, organizing supplies and focusing on a teacher’s instructions.

But that’s just part of the relationship. A peer’s link helps them find a patch of common ground with their classmates. As a result, these students remove the stigma of being “different” by eating lunch with them, saying “hi” and chatting for a while in the hallway, and encouraging them to attend time-honored after-school activities such as homecoming.

Navigating High School’s Social Scene

“Links was originally created for students with autism” said Alissa Hofstee, Caledonia Community Schools’ special education director. “Now we’ve broadened it to include all students with social difficulties, or who have disabilities such as cognitive delays who need assistance navigating the social environment of a high school. The link students model how to make friends, how to work with groups in a classroom, or how to get involved in extracurricular activities.”

“Links shows you a whole new way of thinking about other people,” said high school senior Annie Muscatell. “You learn how to interact and how to talk with them like a friend.”

“There’s a mutual benefit,” said Director Hofstee. “Students with disabilities are being supported by a peer rather than an adult so they feel included in the school community. The benefit to general education students is they’re learning how to be inclusive with peers with disabilities. Research shows there is reduction in bullying and a more cohesive school environment when students understand the different needs of their fellow students.”

Creating a Positive Link

Peer student Ryan Vanderwall said his Link mentor, Kayla McFadden,  a 14-year-old freshman, makes his class time more meaningful. She often makes the school day a real blast, he added.

“She gives me some ideas on the special details to consider in art class,” said Vanderwall. “I saw my link at breakfast today. It was really great, really fun. Sometimes the link helps me on a project that’s really hard for me to do. They’re really great to me, really awesome to help me on a school project.”

Annie Muscatell says Links has made it easier to form friendships

Kayla volunteered in the middle school’s Peer-to-Peer program for three years. She didn’t hesitate this year to enlist in the Links program when she transferred to the high school.

“Links is such a positive thing,” said Kayla. “Not only do we help create a positive link but I’m also affected, too. Ryan is always happy. It makes my day to see him happy. We’re role models, not only for our peers but the other (general education) students.”

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Caledonia Community Schools

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