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New adaptive classes help bridge differences

Adaptive art, P.E. promote inclusion, expand opportunities

Sparta — Two new classes at Sparta Middle School are all about students helping students — and learning in the process.

This year, the middle school launched adaptive art and adaptive physical education: two new courses that expand the district’s Links program, which pairs general-education students with students who have special needs. 

Sparta is a regional hub for students with moderate cognitive impairments (MoCI), drawing kids from Kenowa Hills, Northview, Comstock Park, Kent City, Cedar Springs, and Rockford school districts. The new classes have broadened the district’s integrative Links courses.

In adaptive P.E., taught by Devin Banagis, students bond over physical activities like sports and games, while in Julie Aitken’s adaptive art class, they work together on arts and crafts projects. 

From left, seventh-grader Mahayla Buitendyk, sixth-grader Missy Smock and seventh-grader Hazel Thompson pose for a photo in their adaptive art class

The new additions to the district’s Links curriculum are a win for everyone involved, the teachers agreed.

“The kids love it,” Banagis said. “These kids are already telling me how they’re going to sign up next year, so it’s been going great.”

‘It really opens the eyes of our general-education students to see that, despite learning differences, they can provide this positive influence and foster their leadership skills.’

— adaptive art teacher Julie Aitken

Art, Integration & Inclusion

Aitken said the adaptive programming breaks down barriers and nurtures inclusion, allowing students with special needs to “really, truly integrate.” 

The classes help those students “thrive and be successful,” while gen-ed students provide support, encouragement and assistance as needed.

“It really opens the eyes of our general-education students to see that, despite learning differences, they can provide this positive influence and foster their leadership skills,” Aitken said. “It’s something these students will cherish for a lifetime.”

Two such students are seventh-graders Hazel Thompson and Mahayla Buitendyk, both currently enrolled in adaptive art.

“It’s really fun to help,” Hazel said. “It makes me feel really good.”

Hazel has been involved in Links classes for years, but it’s a new experience for Mahayla. So far, she’s finding it rewarding.

“This is my first year of doing it, and I’ve really enjoyed helping them and growing my patience,” Mahayla said.

Eighth-grader Grace Schmid, currently taking adaptive P.E., also finds value in the new offerings. She said she takes pride in making classmates with special needs feel safe, welcome and respected. 

“We just treat them how we want to be treated — the same as us,” Grace said.

Helping Students Thrive

Teacher Banagis described the adaptive P.E. class as a course with a multi-pronged, holistic approach that focuses on more than fitness.

Eighth-grader Aiden Suli dunks a basketball during a free period in adaptive P.E. while seventh-grader Jack Hohendorf, foreground, looks on

“There’s three domains to P.E.: the cognitive domain, the psychomotor domain and then the affective domain, which deals with social situations and feelings and emotions and values,” he said. “We do a lot of fitness components as well, but the biggest thing is helping our Links become successful.”

Part of that means learning how to try, and even how to fail, with grace.

“It’s a lot of figuring out how to act in situations,” Banagis said.

Banagis also co-teaches the basic Links class with MoCI teacher Abbey Siegel. That class focuses on basic life skills, but Banagis is thrilled that adaptive P.E. is now rounding out the district’s offerings for students with special needs.

“It’s good to get them in here being active,” he said.

Students and teachers alike are excited about the expansion of Sparta’s Links programming.

“I am extremely grateful that the adaptive art and P.E. classes were added to students’ schedules this school year,” Siegel said. “It is nice to work in a place where inclusion is not only valued, but planned for in a way that ensures success for everyone involved.”

Aitken added that students “really do thrive” in the classes, which she said promotes “a better understanding of inclusiveness and how differences can be bridged.”

Read more from Sparta: 
A place for greatness: Student art display dates back decades
Sparta tennis facility named best of 2023

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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