The Gift of Friendship

Developing today’s students to be tomorrow’s leaders is a core commitment at Jenison Public Schools and I see the LINKS program as an every day example of this.

Some of our students with different needs (including Autism Spectrum and others with a disability or cognitive challenge) may require a categorical program with a specific educational plan. While they receive extra one-on-one educational support either from a teacher or paraprofessional, studies have proven that students favor connection with and respond better to their own peers. Our peer-to-peer LINKS program allows for those students to receive the necessary extra supports in a more natural way, by placing a general education student by their side. 

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Depending on the needs, this awareness and connection between the students is cultivated already starting in elementary school. Informally teaching general education students about the uniqueness of their peers, to include others and how to interact with a student who may be having a difficult time.

As students reach high school, the general education LINKS student can further their education and choose the LINKS class as an elective. Mrs. Stacey Van Laan runs the program and meets with the class once a week for instruction that focuses on training the methodologies of working with people with different abilities. They also complete assignments and projects that promote the application of their learning. Each semester, the LINKS student is placed with a Peer student during one class hour (his or her elective hour). The role of the LINKS student is to act as a peer advocate, mentor, role model and friend for their Peer student. Together, they work toward the goal of independence and socialization. The Peer students learn to be a meaningful member of a pair or group and receive assistance with organization of assignments and supplies.

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Peer-2-Peer Bowling Outing

A few of our 11th grade LINKS students reflect on how much they learn from their Peers. Reveling in the uniqueness of their personalities and their interests. They are reminded to be patient with not only their Peers, but everyone they meet. It’s so encouraging to hear how they really love the role of being their friends and seeing them during passing, lunch time, and before and after school.

It’s beyond exciting when we hear parents of the LINKS students commenting on the passion they see in their child to help their Peers. It’s doubly exciting when parents of Peers reciprocate with how much their child is loving school and their LINKS friends. Expressing amazement at the connection and growth they have seen, after some difficult years.

“Jenison has the best kids for this program! We are super grateful for the LINKS students who take the time to help our son be awesome.”  

Parent of a Peer student

In addition to the life skill building that occurs during the school day, the LINKS program arranges social gatherings when possible. A few weeks ago, the group went bowling and during the fall they visited Post Family Farm. This week they finished their Christmas shopping together and celebrated with a cookie decorating and movie party earlier this afternoon. Peer students are also given the option to join a group for school sports, music and theatre events. These types of outings solidify their relationships outside of the classroom and gives all students the experience of a fun social outing.

The inclusive and connected culture within this program and Jenison High School is life changing. I’m so grateful for the gift of time and friendship that the LINKS so genuinely and generously give. Many of the students stay in touch beyond their semester class and continue their social connection. The LINKS program is changing lives through research, education and the relentless passion of our Jenison High School students.

A handful of recent Jenison graduates and former LINKS students are currently studying for their Special Education degree. Other recent LINKS students are planning to use their experience to fuel a career in Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Nursing, Child Life Specialist, etc… Today’s students WILL become tomorrow’s leaders.

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Peer-2-Peer Cookie Decorating and Movie Christmas Party

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Peer-2-Peer Club Post Family Farm Outing

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Peer-2-Peer Christmas Shopping Mall Trip

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Summer Series: Teachers Choose Jenison [Bursley]

This summer, in an effort to celebrate the amazing teachers at JPS, we will feature one each week and their decision to make our schools their professional home. We are thankful for their boundless creativity, pursuit of their own education, and passion for not just their students, but the entire school they serve. We hope you will enjoy learning more about these incredible men and women as you enjoy your own season of rest and fun!

Autism Spectrum Disorder [ASD] Categorical teacher, Kate Walker:

I choose Jenison because Jenison’s program for students with Autism is excellent.  I had the opportunity to work here briefly as a long term substitute and was so impressed with the building leadership and teamwork within the program, when I had the opportunity to come back one year later, it was a “no-brainer.”  While I loved my job within another district, I knew I wanted to be part of this tight-knit, supportive team, which has stretched me and supported me both professionally and personally.

I think Jenison is a different school district because of the support.  I see the community step in and support the district. I see students step in and support each other, especially our students with special needs.  The peer program at the elementary level and the LINKS program at the secondary level allow our students with autism to be supported in unique and tangible ways.

My building exemplifies this by living life like a family.  As staff, we do not hesitate to step into both the personal and professional situations we find ourselves in.  We come around the families of our students to care for them in times of crisis and we do not hesitate to support students with kind words and extra encouragement on a daily basis.

I look forward to summer because I love to spend time with my 3 kids.  We enjoy trips to the beach, the ice cream shop, and many hours at the baseball fields and the pool.  We work to strike a good balance between being busy with friends and activities, and having time to rest and relax.

I am looking forward to continuing to work with my students next year.  One of the best parts of my position is that I typically work with my students for 3 to 4 years.  This allows us to build very close relationships and I get to see their growth across time. It is always amazing to get to the end of their 6th grade year and look back at how far they have come since the beginning of 3rd grade!

Thank you, Ms Walker, for your dedication to our schools and community! We’re thrilled you’re on our team!

Ms Walker was chosen for this story by Bursley Principal, Brent Huck

Preschool Class Joins Forces with Autism Classroom!

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In a classroom at the ECC something very exciting is happening. It’s not just the amazing opportunities to learn through art and play but also the chance for students in the Great Start Readiness Preschool and those on the Autism spectrum to learn together.

Classroom teacher, Tricia Maday explains, “The ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorders] preschool classroom is very unique because it services children on the autism spectrum as well as children included in the Great Start Readiness Preschool.  The intention behind our program is to provide support to all children while using age typically developing peers to help with social and behavioral modeling.

thumb_MIII0821_1024 copy“There have been great successes witnessed already this year in just the few short months we have been in school which is exciting to see and helps build confidence in all children. As an example:

We had one student join our program recently. He had never attended any schooling and has very limited communication skills. At the beginning, he had a difficult time attending to activities and participating in lessons. Through peer modeling and implementing accommodations he is able to follow routines, transitions and attend to activities. He is now demonstrating personal care and daily living skills that we weren’t seeing initially. Another great accomplishment we have been thrilled with is his increased daily communication and demonstration of appropriate expression of emotions. These things might seem very basic but for young children it can be difficult to know the appropriate times to express these feelings and knowing how to communicate them. Every little accomplishment is a huge celebration every day.”

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Of course, creating a learning environment for fourteen four-year olds can be exciting as well as challenging: “Our students are very eager to learn and help each other, but just like any four year old child they certainly keep us on our toes. It’s important for the teacher to take time to facilitate appropriate play with peers, provide strategies for problem solving and create an environment that encourages imaginative play.”

Ms Maday is encouraged by the witnessing the growth and accomplishments that each child is achieving already this year.  “It’s amazing to witness a group of diverse children working together to accomplish their own individualized goals and become their best selves.”

“Children with autism are just like any other child. They have obstacles to overcome and things that may be difficult for them. They all have something to teach and we learn from one another. This experience has been beneficial to everyone involved. Children learn about the unique needs of others as well as their similarities. This exposure helps shape the child into a well-rounded person who is ready for the world outside of the classroom.”

Thank you Ms Maday and the ECC for providing challenging and supportive learning environments for all of our young students!

And on this Thanksgiving Day we are especially thankful for all of the wonderful teachers, staff and administration that make up Jenison Public Schools! Thank you for all you do for our community and students each day!

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