Carroll middle schoolers partner with special-needs classmates, and all are benefiting

SOUTHLAKE -- A new peer tutoring program at Carroll Middle School that pairs students with seven special-needs classmates is being touted by educators as a tremendous success.

The Carroll school district launched a pilot of Helping Our Peers Excel, or HOPE, in January. Each peer helper goes to one class per day with students in the Life Skills program, which is for those with mental or physical disabilities, such as Down syndrome. There are 43 seventh- and eighth-graders working as peers for the seven special-needs students.

"I thought it would be something new to try, and I ended up loving it," said Sarah Warren, 14, an eighth-grade peer helper. "People can think they can be different, but they're really not. When they learn something new it makes you feel good because you were a part of it."

This month, Carroll district trustees voted to add the elective course to Carroll Middle's regular schedule. Officials say the program is helping Life Skills students develop more friendships with their classmates, and students are greeting one another in the hallways and sitting together at lunch.

Eighth-grader Aubrey Poole, 13, who participated in a Plano schools program last year before transferring to Carroll Middle, suggested starting the program. She is partnered with Life Skills seventh-grader Mariah Jacobson in an oceanography class.

"There is a learning curve. You figure out what they're doing, and you alter it and see what works," said Poole, who hopes to one day earn a physical therapy degree. "A lot of the activities are too much bookwork for her, so we might color pictures of fish. I just find a way to incorporate her in class at a level that doesn't frustrate her, but she is still having fun."

Other Carroll district schools also have clubs or informal arrangements for mainstream students to work with special-needs students or to accompany them on outings.

In Keller schools, special-education students work one-on-one with student peer teachers in a separate "Partners in P.E." physical education class. The pilot program is at Hillwood Middle and Keller High schools and will expand to two more high schools next year, said Jessica Springer, who teaches adapted physical education.

In Carroll, officials expected a handful of teens to show interest in becoming peer helpers, but about 100 showed up an informational meeting. Applicants must be responsible, patient and respectful, but they are not required to be top academic performers. The helpers were briefed on their partner's personalities and abilities during training, Life Skills teacher Jennifer Mosely said.

Mosely said her students don't have many role models their own age and tend to have a lot of contact with adults such as nurses and therapists, Mosely said.

"Even though they have the opportunity for peer interaction, it doesn't always occur. This adds some structure to it, some predictability to it," Mosely said. "It worked within the first week. My kids get one-on-one attention, which they crave."

Peer helpers attend classes including reading, math, science, history and electives and help their partners take notes, do art projects, or communicate with classmates or teachers. A peer helper may help hold an animal in an animal science class. Or if a special-needs student has trouble shooting baskets during gym, the peer helper may suggest dribbling the ball instead.

At a Thursday physical education class, peer helpers performed the same activities along with their pals, encouraging them and exchanging high fives. Jamie Hill, an eighth-grade Life Skills student, worked with peer helper Chris Hogan, jumping rope and using Hula-Hoops.

"Chris is great," said Jamie, 15. "He is a great kid and he helps me and helps me stay on task."

JESSAMY BROWN, 817-390-7326