Sparta—High school teacher Renne` Wyman was recently named an honoree of the 2020-2021 Golisano Health Leadership Award from Special Olympics. While she said it’s a tremendous honor, it means so much more.
“It is a new arena for me to talk about our programs as an educator, about creating independence and finding ways for my students to be part of the greater community,” she said.
Wyman started at the district in a special education classroom at the middle school, and now works with high-school students with mild cognitive challenges. She said she continually looks for ways to include her students in mainstream activities.
“For so many areas, these kids have been held back from the independence they desire and need,” she said. “For years, many haven’t realized that they can find and hold good jobs and many haven’t even been able to pursue personal interests.”
Part of the Team
Sophomore Aidan Berkompas knows that first-hand. Because of Wyman’s efforts and the Unified Sports program, in which students take to the court or field alongside their general education peers, Aidan has found his niche.
“Unified Sports gave Aidan something he always wanted: to be part of a team,” said his dad, Dave Berkompas. While he didn’t make the seventh-grade team at his previous school, “Unified Sports gives him the chance to compete, and he loves it.”
Berkompas said his son practices basketball and football “constantly in our back yard to improve his skill level.”
Sparta is one of only 78 schools nationwide that fields Unified Sports teams. It was also the first to bring snowboarding to the state games, held in Traverse City. As Wyman shares stories and pictures of the Spartans’ first-ever powerlifting team, she said she is determined to bring Unified Sports to all fields and courts.
“Bringing these students on the gym floor with gen ed students is so wonderful,” she said. “My kids hustle and challenge themselves ten times more,” she said. “I am so impressed. Nobody made them do it, but there is something about inclusion.”
Added Berkompas: “There is also a huge benefit for the general education students. They learn so much by partnering with these kids.”
Health & Wellness
Finding a place on team sports is important, but so is learning about personal fitness, Wyman said. “These students often have a poor ability to recognize health and wellness benefits for themselves.” She noted the recent award was partially based on her efforts to teach those benefits through donated Fitbit health trackers.
“Special Olympics piloted the program, and I wanted to see my students take home what I was teaching in the classroom,” she said.
Through the health trackers, her students learn to manage another aspect of their health and also keep fitness journals. That’s been especially welcome during the coronavirus pandemic, she said, because it promotes independence.
“Sometimes I get a text from them at 7 p.m. telling me what they have accomplished,” Wyman said.
Much of Wyman’s teaching revolves around teaching independent living skills, like healthy eating, cooking and handling money. “These are such important skills for them, as many of them have been taken care of for so long,” she said. “They need to be able to care for themselves.”
Making music, with instruments donated by Grand Rapids-based Meyer Music, is another way Wyman helps her students find their passions and bond with peers.
She also has worked with other educators to modify health programs used in classrooms like hers, and contributed to a reproductive education program designed to pilot nationally. She worked on federal grants and helped get an abstinence-based reproductive curriculum modified for those with mild cognitive impairments.
One of her students, Rose Groth, was the first participant with a mild cognitive impairment to present at a national conference on a student panel for federal grant recipients after helping pilot the curriculum. Online safety was one topic.
“I may be a small-town teacher,” Wyman said, “but It is so exciting to be a part of things like this.”
Best Prom Ever
Figuring out where students with cognitive challenges fit into society and sharing those experiences led Wyman to start the Best Prom Ever, which has become an annual event in Sparta.
The Best Prom Ever, going on its 18th year, started as a rehearsal for social opportunities, giving those students the opportunity to mingle with those of all abilities, and to reach out to families to talk about the students’ social-emotional development. Now the popular event requires training many volunteers, who watch for signs of discomfort and help students navigate peer relationships. Wyman said she is working with other organizations such as Family Catholic Church and Knights of Columbus to help spread the idea of inclusion dances internationally.
Wyman said she understands that her students want and deserve to be part of the community.
“Fitness is one big goal,” she said. “But what I know is that no one benefits from a one-sided relationship. The community is enriched because of these kids.”