Peer Tutors Promote
Inclusion, Positive CulturePosted by Josh Flory on 11/15/2019
Westen Henry’s favorite thing about Halls High School is the friends he’s made during his time as a student.
But for Henry and other special education students at Halls, friendships are also an important factor in their academic success.
Halls and other schools across KCS offer peer tutoring programs, in which general education students spend time in special education classes, where they assist with lessons and provide one-on-one guidance for in-class work.
The idea is not only to provide support for special education students, but also to offer learning opportunities for general education students.
“Peer models are really important in teaching students new skills, so having peer tutors in there to serve as models and provide different supports in the classroom is really important,” said Jason Myers, Executive Director of Student Supports at KCS. “And from a social standpoint -- developing an inclusive, positive culture in a school -- it serves a vital role.”
On a recent morning at Halls High School, special education teacher Sarah Wheeler read a story about football and engaged students in conversation about the sport. It was a timely topic because the school’s annual “Tuesday Night Lights” game, in which special education students got a chance to play a game on the field and perform as cheerleaders, was scheduled for that evening.
The classroom included students with a wide variety of abilities, including some who used wheelchairs and others who used electronic devices to assist with communication. At the same time, as the class transitioned into hands-on activities using scissors and glue sticks, much of the assistance was provided by general education peer tutors, who talked with their special ed counterparts and assisted them with their work.
Ellie Hassell, a sophomore at Halls who serves as a peer tutor, is considering a career as a special education teacher, and said she enjoys the chance to work with others and the feeling of making a difference.
Asked why it’s important to have peers serving as tutors, Hassell said they can relate to what special ed students are going through, because they’re all students together. “And you’re easier to talk to at points, because (students) don’t want to talk to adults about some things,” she added. “So it’s nice to have somebody to just sit down and chat with sometimes.”
For her part, Wheeler got a bachelor’s degrees in psychology, then worked as a teaching assistant at Brickey-McCloud Elementary while getting her master’s degree. After realizing that she didn’t want a desk job, Wheeler decided to pursue a master’s in special education while working full-time as a first-year teacher at Halls.
Wheeler said peer tutors provide validation for special ed students, and that they have a good sense of when to offer support and when to step back.
“They’re not about socializing with each other, they’re not concerned with what’s going on with themselves or their phones, they come in and they’re about our students … They’re just really in tune with what my students need and I feel like that comes from just spending time with them,” she said.
Those interactions don’t just happen in the classroom. Peer tutors sometimes take their special-ed counterparts out for ice cream or a movie, and they also participate in “unifying sports” through the Special Olympics, in which they team up for an athletic competition.
Alyssa Geoffrion, a 9th-grader at Halls, works with Hassell, and uses an electronic tablet to communicate. Geoffrion is a writer, whose interests include zombie horses and airplanes such as the Blue Angels. Asked how she’s learned about airplanes, Geoffrion used the tablet to say “I learned about them since I saw them … at the airport.”
Besides providing support and learning during high school, the peer tutoring program can also plant a seed that draws students into education.
Myers, who leads the Student Supports department for KCS, said he worked as a peer tutor during high school.
“It was incredibly impactful for me,” he said. “It put me in an environment where I was with students who were different than me. I was exposed to different learning styles and various things, and I just developed an interest in working with students with disabilities.”
To see a video about peer tutoring, visit our YouTube channel.