Where there might have been barriers, there now are bridges. Where there may have been anxiety and uncertainty, there now is trust and friendship.

The West Shore Educational Service District’s (ESD) Rising Stars program offers peer-to-peer pairing of students with special needs with their traditional school classmates at Mason County Central Middle School is in full swing.

“They’re building connections,” said Kim Maue, West Shore Educational Services District Assistant Superintendent of Special Education.

“It’s really about developing friendships, and then getting the guidance and support from a fellow peer on how to interact. It’s not only for our students, but it’s also for the students who are in general education at MCC because they’re learning acceptance of kids who are different than them, they’re learning about disabilities and that just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they don’t like the same things as you.

“It’s really (teaching) them that we’re not so different, after all. I think it does help them to navigate (with each other). You still don’t want them to be naive to situations – not just to trust everyone – we don’t want that. We just want them to engage in a basic conversation with somebody, where they don’t have to just sit by themselves, or not talk to anybody. We want them to know that it’s okay, people will talk to you, just give it a try and ask them a question.”

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West Shore ESD provides classroom program service to students from all local school districts within Lake, Mason and Oceana counties, serving students with developmental disabilities and moderate and severe disabilities, with an array of programs including: Early Childhood Special Education; Moderate Cognitive Impairment; Severe Cognitive Impairment; Severe Multiple Impairment; Reintegration Program; and, Employability Skills.

“They might do a game together, or talk about some activity,” the assistant superintendent said. “So, they sign up to come down during their Advisory Period. We usually have a little over a hundred students from MCC who’ll sign up for this. It starts with our Special Ed teacher for that program who goes around and presents to different advisory groups that the kids are broken into at MCC and she tells them what peer-to-peer is and lets them know that this is something that they can sign up to do. She does a training orientation with them – kind of preps them – what to expect with their peers, how to engage them in conversation, how to take an interest inventory where an MCC student might start to develop a friendship with our students so they know what their interests are – maybe they are into cars, or maybe into Legos, so they know what to talk to them about.

“What normally might not have been a natural friendship to start because they are in different classrooms, our kids will then go into lunch and to other common settings – typically they are in different classrooms – so this kind of bridges that gap and you do see friendships develop,” Kim said of the unique, and successful, peer-to-peer program.

“Once they get to know and gravitate toward each other, they kind of bond, and that’s something that wouldn’t naturally occur. So this helps to bridge that gap. And it just gives our students that opportunity to learn how to socialize with kids their own age in a natural setting, and the students from MCC – they’re also sixth, seventh, eighth graders – will be good role models for how to interact with another kid, compared to just adults role modeling all the time.”

Jeff Mount, superintendent at MCC, added: “The Rising Stars Program located at Mason County Central Middle School is a great example of the solid partnership the West Shore Educational Service District has with our local school districts. Having this program and the students it serves located within our Middle School enriches the school experience for everyone – students, staff, and parents.”