By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Vann Smith talks with Samantha Contreras and Chris Jensen during lunch.
Vann Smith has disabilities. But he also has a huge smile on his face and friends sitting next to him on a blanket at Clairemont High School in San Diego during lunchtime.
“I have lots of friends, and I love them,” he says, grinning.
Some friends sitting nearby also have special needs; many do not. But they are all members of the Circle of Friends club, where special education students eat lunch and socialize with general education students. The club consists of 50 students with special needs and 100 general education students who develop friendships on the lawn at lunchtime on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“Our motto is that it’s never too late to make a friend,” says Marianne Miller, the speech pathologist who oversees the club. “We accept people throughout the year, and everyone is welcome. It’s all about inclusion and teaching kids to care about each other. Students are learning that they can make a difference in the world by embracing someone who is different.”
Circle of Friends originated in a Santa Monica high school a decade ago after a speech pathologist saw a student with disabilities sitting alone at lunchtime. Like the circles of ripples from a pebble tossed in a pond, the club has spread. There are now 75 chapters nationwide. At Clairemont High, general education students must take “ability awareness training” before joining, and the training has an anti-bullying component.
Miller, a member of the San Diego Education Association (SDEA), founded a chapter six years ago in her district with her assistant Susan Lemmons, because she wanted “full inclusion” to be more than a cliché at Clairemont, where nearly 20 percent of the 1,500 students have some type of disability. She wanted special education students to be able to practice social skills in an “authentic setting” and to feel acceptance and self-worth. Miller’s goal was for special education students not to simply “attend” school — she wanted them to belong to the school.
Students and faculty say Circle of Friends has accomplished all of these things and more.
“It is, simply, the best thing that ever happened to Clairemont High School,” says special education teacher and SDEA member Roseanne Cherrick.
The club, says Cherrick, ended the sight of students with special needs sitting alone at lunchtime at their own table in the cafeteria every day of the week. Some special education students regularly eat lunch on the “senior lunch lawn” on days when the club doesn’t meet. Incidents of bullying have decreased. Last year, a special education student was elected homecoming prince, and another won the school’s talent show.
“Our special education kids are more popular — or just as popular — as any other kids here at Clairemont,” says Miller proudly.
Club President Abbi Chick says general education students benefit just as much, if not more so, as students with disabilities who belong.
“Other than the fact that it’s a lot of fun, I’ve learned a lot about myself,” says Chick, a junior. “I learned that I am a horrible listener, and I’ve learned how to listen really well. This club helped me to improve my social skills. And I’ve gotten to know special education students as people. It’s like any other friendship; we just happened to meet through this program.”
Chris Jensen, a junior and general education student, says the club has helped bring him out of his shell. “I used to feel left out,” he explains. “I was shy and not talking, with my iPod always on. Now I’m meeting new people and out and about.”
General education students who join the club earn community service credit, but many go above and beyond club requirements. They take their friends with disabilities to the movies on weekends, attend their birthday parties, and hang out when meetings are not in session, says Chick.
Tenth-grader Daniel Owen, a general education student, says being a member of Circle of Friends has made him more empathetic toward others.
“Now I notice people with disabilities all the time because I’m more aware,” he says. “I understand what they are going through and want to support them. In the past I thought some people were being annoying or problematic on purpose, but now I realize that some people have no control over their behavior.”
Yenni Rivas, a 12th-grader with cerebral palsy who speaks with great difficulty, says the club has improved her overall high school experience.
“It is a good opportunity for us to get to know other people our age,” she says. “They treat us like we’re normal kids. I like that.”
David Cale, whose son, Preston, has Down syndrome and graduated from high school last year, says the club improved his son’s speech and ability to socialize.
“If not for this club, my son would have been the kid in the hall that nobody talked to,” says Cale. “Instead, because of this club, he had an absolutely wonderful high school experience. He went to football games. Cheerleaders came by and talked to him. He participated in the dance team and drama. He played piano in the talent show and the crowd roared like he was Elton John. It may start with lunch, but it spreads into the classroom and throughout the school. Thanks to Circle of Friends, my son found self-esteem and self-worth.”
For more information or to start a Circle of Friends club at your school, visit www.circleofriends.org or contact founder Barbara Palilis at email@example.com.