Students at Kokomo High School are carrying on the legacy of a recent graduate who started a club last year that unites special education and general education students to create a more inclusive environment.
The club, Kats Together, was launched by 2020 graduate and Bezos Scholar Brayden York during his senior year as the culminating project for his National Bezos Scholars experience. The club strives to make all students feel included. After York graduated, he passed the leadership onto Rilyn Wonnell, who’s kept the program going this year.
“We both have been really involved in the special education program, so he handed it down to me. I accepted, and I was really excited,” Wonnell said. “My main goal is to make sure everyone gets to be included. Right now it’s kind of like two separate worlds between the special ed and general ed, and I think it’s important that everyone is part of something.”
On designated Fridays, the club brings together eight students from the special education program and eight general education students. They eat lunch together in the cafeteria and then meet afterward to play games and eat ice cream.
While COVID has limited the number of times the club has been able to meet, Wonnell said it’s already making a difference by bridging the gap between the two student groups. New friendships already are forming.
While Wonnell was discussing the group, one of the students from the special education program came up to her and put her arm around her.
“This is our second time meeting this year, and I met her the first time. Now we’re really close friends,” Wonnell said about her new friendship. “We’re really close, and it’s just a fun time. They all have a super fun time.”
Of the eight general education students, four were selected to remain constant — Olivia Hicks, Mitchell Van Horn, Joey McConnell, and Wonnell — and the other four rotate each meeting.
Hicks, who’s been part of three club meetings so far, said it’s been nice to meet students she typically doesn’t get the chance to hang out with.
“It’s really nice to interact with them because a lot of the time it feels like the special needs classes and transition classes are over on this side of the cafeteria, and our school feels divided at times,” Hicks said. “It’s really nice to show that we have similarities, and we’re just really all one as students.”
After lunch, the students gathered to play games. Amaniyona Swygert, a student in the special education program, played Bop It with three other students, and she set a new record. Swygert cheered while the other students congratulated her.
At another table, students played Tumball, a game in which they tried to place white plastic balls on top of colored balls without the white balls falling through. It proved challenging, but the students encouraged each other as they rotated turns.
Student Mattie Huffer, who’s in the special education program, laughed after she strategically tried to place a white ball, but the placement caused many of the white balls to fall and scatter.
Brian Ngatunga, an international student from Tanzania, clapped and told her, “It’s OK. It was a good try.”
Kelly Barker, who oversees the transitions special education program, said she was proud of the students for continuing the club after York graduated and that it’s been popular.
“It really sparked a huge interest. We’ve always bragged here that our students are so accepting, and we don’t deal with bullying. We don’t deal with the negative effects of things, and this program so early in its birth being such a huge hit I think is such a testament to our student population,” Barker said.
Since 2015, Kokomo High School has had an Indiana High School Athletic Association sanctioned Unified Track team in which students of all abilities compete against other schools for the chance to advance to state finals.
York was a part of that team during high school, which sparked his interest in starting a club for all abilities that wasn’t just for those interested in athletics.
“It’s very important for our students with special needs to have the same opportunities as our general education students, and Unified Track really showed our student population how incredible the partnership is for students that are alike and students that are different,” Barker said. “I think that’s part of what really motivated Brayden to take what we could do out on the track and bring it into the school. He saw that larger vision.”
York worked with teacher Leslie Lewis, who he chose as his adult sponsor for the Bezos Scholars program, and the pair attended the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado in the summer of 2019. From that, York was inspired to start Kats Together back in his hometown.
Lewis commended York for coming up with such an impactful and potentially lasting project.
“He wanted to come back to KHS and put together a program that united able students with students with disabilities in a social way because that’s a way that we don’t normally get to interact with each other, other than Unified Track,” Lewis said.
The goal for next school year is to have Kats Together meetings twice a month. With around 40 students in the special education program, the hope is to give the students at least two chances to participate a year.