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Social inclusion classes at Fargo Davies create connections for ELL, special ed students

Katie Kuklenski, 17, a junior at Fargo Davies High School, reads a magazine Friday, Dec. 19, 2014, to Hannah Schmid, a special education student, left, as special education paraprofession John Campbell looks on. Kuklenski is a social inclusion class student, who is helping special education students get more connected with their classmates and feel more involved at Davies. Helmut Schmidt / The Forum.1 / 2
Beletsom Gezae, 17, of Eritrea, paraprofessional Sifa Ntiyu-Bisimwa, 32, and Shreejan Bhujek 15, of Nepal, enjoy food and conversation during "Culture Day," held Friday, Dec. 14, 2014, at Davies High School as part of the school's social inclusion class. As part of the Culture Day, students brought dishes from their homelands to share in a potluck meal. Helmut Schmidt / The Forum.2 / 2

FARGO – It was “Culture Day” for the social inclusion class at Fargo Davies High School on Friday.

A dozen English Language Learners and their American peers lined up at the front of the classroom to load their plates with dishes from around the world, while ELL science teacher Samantha Bachmeier beamed.

“It is a fun day of learning,” Bachmeier said.

The breaking of bread is a form of social glue, she said.

“It’s about sharing cultures. One of the best ways we represent our cultures is food,” Bachmeier said.

“All of the students brought something to share,” she said, including Mohammad Tajik.

The 18-year-old has been in the U.S. for a month; two weeks at Davies.

“Me, new,” the Iraqi native said, pointing to himself. He taught himself some English from a book.

The food is “good, very good,” Tajik said, before returning to his meal.

Social inclusion classes have been offered at Davies for four years, pairing mainstream students with special education students.

But this year, the classes include the newest of New Americans, Level I English Language Learners.

The aim is to help ELL students learn English and integrate into American school life faster. Social inclusion students act as mentors, teaching ELL students such things as how to negotiate the lunchroom, use lockers, interact with teachers and get along socially.

“I believe this is a class everyone should take in high school,” said senior Khristian Coulter.

Not long ago, Coulter had no solid plans for her future. College was a maybe.

Now, she’s focused on a career as a special education teacher.

Coulter said she went into the social inclusion class thinking she would make a difference in the lives of those she met. “They have made a difference in my life instead.”

In another part of Davies, special education teacher Erin Hepola monitored her social inclusion and special education students as they did crafts, played games or read.

“I think it’s fun just to see the kids interact. I think both sets of students learn a lot from each other,” Hepola said.

The contact builds relationships for the special education students. “It’s huge in the lunch room to have someone say ‘Hi!’ and be recognized.”

Social inclusion students, meanwhile, learn empathy, Hepola said.

Katie Kuklenski, 17, a junior, spent time with Hannah Schmid, helping her by paging through a magazine.

“She loves her magazines,” Kuklenski said. “I just love this class. I just thought it would be a fun experience.”

Students in the social inclusion class split their semesters, working nine weeks with special education students and nine weeks with ELL students.

“It’s transforming the way our regular education students are viewing our special education population students, as well as our ELL students,” Davies Principal Troy Cody said.

Fargo North High School also has students with multiple impairments and has social inclusion classes, he said.

Cody said the program develops outward thinking for the mentors.

“It’s less ‘about me’ and more about how I can help someone else in their walk through life,” Cody said.

For the special education students, the interaction is a way of saying, “regardless of your disability, you’re just as much a part of our school as our star quarterback or the lead actress in a play,” Cody said.

Lots of emphasis in schools in the past decade has been on improving test scores, but not necessarily on helping students become better people and citizens, he said.

“At the end of the day, it’s stuff like this that makes a difference in the world,” Cody said. “Lives are being changed in public schools based on a program like this.”

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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