A ‘Unified’ approach to special education is changing lives at a MN middle school

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This article was originally written by Kent Erdahl and published by KARE11 on March 16, 2023.

Edina’s South View Middle School has spent nine years partnering with Special Olympics Minnesota on a program that transcends Special Education.

EDINA, Minn. — Even on the snowiest of school days, there is a warmth that radiates far beyond the walls of Edina’s South View Middle School.

Students at the school have been shattering perceptions around friendship and special education, thanks to a partnership with Special Olympics Minnesota.

“Everyone gets along. Everyone can be who they want to be,” said Jennie Schaefer, a special education teacher who helped South View launch a pilot program as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School nine years ago.

When the Edina Unified program began, it consisted of a morning gathering that brought together special education students with their neurotypical peers.

That program generated so much interest, and became so popular, that it led to Unified flex periods, which gave students the chance to use their free periods to spend time within special education programming.

 “You kind of help with the class like like you’re a teacher’s assistant,” said Ted Salmen, a seventh grader who has been part of the program for two years. “But it’s more than that. You’re here to build connections.”

Those connections have grown so strong, that South View now counts on roughly 180 student leaders, who have built a program that now extends throughout the school. There are now also Unified Electives, which are combined classes like music, art, and physical education.

“My students are with their neurotypical peers 100% of their day,” Schaefer said.

For special education students like Ian O’Brien, that kind of interaction has changed his relationship with his peers.

“They’re my friends,” he said.

Friends that he and his family are beyond grateful for.

“It wasn’t something I ever even dreamed of,” said Ian’s mom, Anne O’Brien. “You always have hopes. You hope your child won’t be bullied or you hope you’ll be a successful student. But for me, Unified has gone way beyond that. He’s a part of a community there. He’s not just isolated in a separate part of the building with Special Ed peers, he’s a part of the group.”

And it turns out the joy is mutual.

“It’s amazing,” Salmen said. “I love it. It’s just like what keeps me going to school in the months in the dead of winter.”

“I’ve had so much fun doing it and I think it’s probably one of my favorite classes in middle school,” said Jacob Leiker, a seventh grader at South View.

“Middle school is really stressful,” said Ellse Thomson, a seventh grader at South View. “But in the middle of all this stressful schoolwork, you come here and you hang out with your friends and you have fun and it’s just so stress-free.”

“You get all kinds of different people in here, all different friend groups,” Salmen said. “It like crosses boundaries like that. You’ll be friends with someone who you never thought you’d be friends with through this program.”

And in many cases, including Ian’s, those friendships now extend beyond the program. The school takes regular Unified field trips so that students can socialize outside of school, and several students have developed friendships that span weekends, summers and school years.

“They call because they want to hang out with Ian and be a part of his life outside of school,” Anne O’Brien said. “He’s got more friends than I do. He’s got more friends than I ever thought he would have and I think he is going to make some life-long friends.”

“Getting the emails from families on the weekends, with pictures, are you kidding me? I used to tear up all the time,” Schaefer said. “Now I’m just like, this is my why. These kids have so many opportunities and it is because of what has started here.”

Now, nine years after starting as a Unified pilot program, South View is more of a pilot light, helping Special Olympics Minnesota ignite Unified programs in more than 230 schools, and counting.

In December, the school once again set the standard for inclusivity, winning the Special Olympics Minnesota Inclusive School Week Challenge.

“We were competing to show how awesome our Unified program is here, and how inclusive everyone is,” said South View student Andi Donovan. “It’s easy for us because we all hang out. We’re actual friends.”

Special Olympics Minnesota helps provide resources to get the Unified programs started in schools across the state, but from there, each school does its own fundraising for things like field trips and other resources to help the program expand.

In two weeks, Edina Unified will hold its annual Polar Plunge fundraiser at South View. Reporter Kent Erdahl will be there to make the plunge with the kids. To donate, click here.