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Kind, inclusive, encouraging

Elementary peer program unites students, builds acceptance

Kenowa Hills — In special education teacher Marsha Martinez’s classroom at Central Elementary, a rousing game of Left, Right, Center was underway.

The students sat in a circle, taking turns rolling large foam dice and moving pine tree cutouts to the person on their left, right, and middle of the circle or keeping them. 

“If Charlie rolls one more dot, she’s safe and she’s our winner,” social worker Emily Carey said.

A fourth-grader with autism spectrum disorder, Charlie Dennis rolled the dice with encouragement from her classmates. She rolled “center” and had to put her pine tree in the center of the circle.

She passed the dice to classmate Ian Coleman, who began rolling with some assistance from his Central SUNS friend, fifth-grader Emmett Fussman. While his classmates are at recess, Emmett and his small group of SUNS opted to spend time with their friends. 

Originated from peer to peer programs for students with autism spectrum disorder, Students United Navigating School is a program where third-, fourth- and fifth-graders visit special education classrooms at Central to spend time with their peers.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, SUNS students rotate between visiting one of the three special education classrooms for 15 to 20 minutes. During their time together, they make new friends, practice social skills and help with class work. 

Changing School Culture 

Since the program officially started in 2016, speech language pathologist and SUNS coordinator Kathi DeYoung said it has inspired understanding, acceptance and kindness throughout the school.

“SUNS are so kind and inclusive and encouraging with their friends, and that sticks out to me,” she said. 

DeYoung, Martinez and other special education teachers visit all classrooms three times a year to present on different learning abilities, acceptance and the SUNS program.

By the time students are in second grade, going on to third, DeYoung said many of them are eager to become SUNS. 

“This year’s fifth-graders have been brought up in this program, so what I see are kids that are more patient and accepting, more so than with their peers,” she said. 

Fifth-grader Emmett described SUNS as kind, trustworthy and helpful people.  

Fifth-grader Simone VanDenBosch said “I like being a SUNS because I get to help out people in the classrooms we go into, and like to play games with the other students.”

When Simone is met with a trying situation, she’s learned to practice patience and help her friends “stay on track.” 

“Simone, especially, is very good at picking up on student needs,” Martinez said.

Students play a game with their fourth-grade SUNS friends in Jenn Schultz’s classroom for those with mild cognitive impairments

‘Just What We Do Here’

Martinez also described SUNS as a part of the building’s culture, and said helping one another is “just what we do here.” 

In 2020, the SUNS raised money for a communication board on their playground to help non-verbal classmates join play at recess.  

“It’s not foreign for them to do these things and help their classmates,” Martinez said. “They’re learning and teaching different ways to problem solve and how to communicate with non-verbal students. They’re really good with reaching all students where they’re at.” 

DeYoung said Kenowa Hills Middle School is in the process of starting a peer-to-peer program, and many students who went to Central are involved. 

“They’re amazing, and we’re so proud of them,” Martinez said. “Students rise to the occasion and they shine.” 

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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