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Student with Autism Hits Milestones Thanks to Teachers, Students

Connor Zondervan is pretty much like every other senior at Caledonia High School. He takes classes, is getting ready to graduate, and figuring out where he wants to go to college.

It’s a place his parents never thought he would be because of their son’s autism. They credit the Caledonia Community Schools’ dedicated special education staff for making it possible.

“When Connor was in elementary school, we didn’t have any idea he would someday be capable of going to college like any other student,” said his mom Dawn Zondervan, a Thornapple Kellogg speech and language pathologist. “Because of the persistence of the staff at Caledonia to provide him with support, he is.”

Connor Zondervan, a senior at Caledonia High School, said the peer-to-peer programs at the school have helped him overcome the socialization issues of autism and become who he is today
Connor Zondervan, a senior at Caledonia High School, said the peer-to-peer programs at the school have helped him overcome the socialization issues of autism and become who he is today

Surrounding Students with Support

Jennifer Ambrose, an autism teacher consultant for Caledonia, said one reason the special education program at Caledonia works well is that its staff is always willing to go above and beyond to meet the needs of students.

Alissa Hofstee, director of special education, said the district leadership focuses on building systems that have the largest impact on student learning and that are sustainable.  The emphasis on systems thinking “has helped the staff in our special education department to have a common focus and vision,” she said.

Caledonia’s special education team includes the classroom teacher, speech therapists, occupational and physical therapists, social workers, school psychologists, teacher consultants and more.  “The intent of the team approach is collaboration around determining how the student learns best and creating instruction that aligns with that understanding,” Hofstee said.

“All districts provide these ‘related services’ as determined by the IEP (individualized education program), but our team at Caledonia is exceptional in their ability to innovate,” she added.

Zondervan has high praise for the high school staff. “They’ve worked to be flexible,” she said. “It’s required extra time on their part. Each trimester there is a team meeting with his new teachers. It’s been that connection we’ve had with the general education staff and their passion to help Connor that has helped him be successful.”

Students and LINKS Classes Played a Big Role

Zondervan said when teachers welcomed her into their classrooms at the beginning of school years to talk with her about how they could best help Connor, students wanted to help, too. “It got them excited,” she said. “They would come flooding in to offer assistance.”

Students at the high school also deserve credit for helping those with autism and other disabilities through LINKS classes. The program links general education peers with students who have disabilities. The students sit next to one another in the classroom and the LINK helps with socialization and academics.

More than 110 students this year will take LINKS classes. They got started three years ago with about 40 students.  All five elementaries at Caledonia, both middle schools and the high school have some type of peer-to-peer program.  It’s unusual for a district to have so many, said LINKS teacher Scott Bont, adding Caledonia has eight of the 41 buildings in Kent County with peer-to-peer programs.

“For a lot (of students), if they didn’t have a LINK, I don’t think they’d be able to go to general ed classes,” Bont said. “I think we do a pretty good job of accepting and supporting kids with disabilities.”

This is the first year Connor, who is on the high end of the autism spectrum, is attending high school classes without a peer sitting beside him. Zondervan thinks having other students as helpers is a great idea.

“A student can learn from a peer mentor what they can learn from an adult,” she said. “It’s awkward to have an adult sitting next to you. They’re much more open to a peer than an adult.”

Connor said LINKS helped him come out of his shell and be more outgoing toward others. “I kept to myself with my head in a book instead of socializing with others,” he said. “LINKS pushed me to be more social. Now, everyday I’m talking to kids at the lunch table.”

Alex Royce and Ben Pattison, friends of Connor Zondervan, right, have seen him become much more confident at Caledonia High School
Alex Royce and Ben Pattison, friends of Connor Zondervan, right, have seen him become much more confident at Caledonia High School

Friends Teach Each Other

Ben Pattison and Alex Royce have been friends with Connor since elementary grades, going to birthday parties, movies and other events with him. They’ve seen him become more confident as he’s gone through high school.  Being friends with Connor also has taught them a greater awareness about autism and made them more aware of what they say about others. “He’s still the same as us,” Alex said.

Nick Salamone is a senior who admits he knew little about those with disabilities before becoming a LINK. “I keep learning from it,” Salamone said. “The biggest challenge is to get them to open up with me.”

Bont noted that special education students can be seen as a distraction in general ed classes on their own.  As he talked, he looked over to a special education student coming out of a TV production class. “The student couldn’t be in that class without a LINK,” he said.


Friendships Break Down Barriers General & Special Ed Students to Benefit

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.


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