Children and Youth

Inclusion: not just a buzzword at San Benito High School

Staff- and student-driven programs allow students with special needs the chance to participate in all aspects of high school life
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This article was written by Adam Breen, Communications Director for San Benito High School.

Inclusion is more than an educational buzzword at San Benito High School, where students with special needs are not just included, but embraced and accepted, by their general education peers. The school has no fewer than 10 programs that focus on preparing students in the Life Skills program “to be active and confident members of our community and of society,” according to Paulette Cobb, the district’s director of special education.

Beyond the benefits that these various programs have for students with disabilities, “we build empathetic and socially-conscious general education peers through our inclusionary practices,” Cobb says.

With names like “Gifted Cheer,” “Gifted Soccer,” “Life Skills Prom,” and the “Peer Helper Program,” the district offers a wide range of programs that Cobb proudly notes were not mandated curriculum, but rather put in place by staff and/or students. Time and time again the staff steps forward to use their talents to benefit students and to strengthen the school culture.

Circle of Friends

The Circle of Friends program, piloted with 30 students in 2010 by Special Education Program Specialist and Department Chair Casandra Guerrero, has blossomed to include approximately 250 general education students supporting nearly 60 students with special needs. Based on the inclusion program founded by Barbara Palilis, COF pairs students with developmental disabilities with non-disabled peers to make a connection, practice social skills in a natural environment and raise awareness and acceptance of others on campus.

“Circle of Friends isn’t a special education program,” Guerrero notes, “it’s a program for everyone.”

The club, now the largest on campus, has students meet at lunch once or twice a week and also use texting, phone calls and social media as they are able.

“I believe it has made the campus culture more accepting and inclusive of all students and created opening for opportunities that may not have been there otherwise,” Guerrero says. “I have heard from general education peers that they learned a lot about themselves, and how to be a compassionate and accepting person.”

In fact, several of the students who started off as peers in Circle of Friends chose to become Special Education teachers as a result.

COF does more than just pair up students for lunchtime conversation, it also hosts banquets, dances, movie nights, classroom ability awareness presentations and an anti-bullying assembly.

“Since the inception of Circle of Friends, teachers, administrators and students have reported an improvement in inclusion and acceptance overall on campus, including a drop in disciplinary incidents involving the special education population the year after it started,” Guerrero says.

Cobb notes that the club was the “first, big step where we had large-scale inclusion for our students with disabilities. It’s teaching our general ed population to be empathetic and our students in special education are developing communication skills and making significant growth because of this program.”

Inspired by the inclusionary model, COF has spawned efforts such as the Gifted Cheer and Soccer programs and a special homecoming royalty category for students in special education.

Gifted Games

A predecessor to Circle of Friends, the Gifted Games began in 2005 as a way for SBHS Life Skills students to train for and participate in athletics in a non-competitive atmosphere. The activity then expanded to an event that invited students from Hollister Elementary School District schools to compete at the campus stadium and in 2011 the Games invited the Gilroy Unified School District to participate.

The Gifted Games, now in its 13th year, is open to all preschool through high school students in San Benito County and Gilroy Unified, and the event is hosted in alternating years by SBHS and Gilroy High School.

Coordinator Tania Sauer said that more than 400 students from San Benito and Santa Clara counties participate in the Gifted Games, which instill a sense of pride and accomplishment in all competitors. Cobb said the success of the Gifted Games has attracted the attention of the Special Olympics, which Sauer hopes to partner with in the future.

Baler Biscuits

Another project Sauer coordinates is Baler Biscuits, which for the past seven years has given students in the Life Skills program real-world business experience making and selling dog treats, in partnership with the district’s Workability program. Students are responsible for making the dough, bagging the treats and selling them on campus and in the community.

The effort helps students develop and practice skills such as communication, math and business skills, social interaction, organization and occupational skills, and mobility.

Sauer said her students offer the treats on campus and off. “The best part is receiving pictures of the dog enjoying the treat and showing them to my students. The Baler Biscuit business continues to be a great activity for my students to practice mixing, taking turns, fine motor skills and communication.”

Peer Helpers

The Peer Helper program, developed on campus in 2011, is a class in which general education students attend Life Skills classes to serve as extra support for teachers and students. The helpers — there can be two or three in every severely disabled classroom — may be assigned to a particular student or a group of students to provide support on academic, functional and social tasks. At the end of the semester, they complete a final reflecting on their time as a peer helper or they lead a class lesson.

Many peer helpers credit their experience as a springboard to a special education teaching career.

SBHS 2013 alumna Ellie Burley was a peer helper for two years and is now a SPED teacher at her alma mater. She credits the program with helping special education and general education students.

“Having these peer helpers in class helps our SPED students with their social skills and allows them to interact with students other than their classmates,” said Burley, whose mom, Joan, is also a special education teacher at SBHS. “In terms of our general education students, it helps them learn skills such as patience and understanding. In this class we aren’t learning about solving algebraic equations or the meaning behind a poem; we are learning that no matter the differences in our ability, we all have things in common that can build solid foundations for strong friendships.”

Cobb recalls when a representative from the School For the Blind visited campus and watched the peer helpers in action. “They said, ‘you realize you’re raising teachers here?’ It’s reverse inclusion: the general ed kids come into the classroom instead of our kids going out.”

Gifted Cheer

Founded in the 2015-16 school year by Hilda Cascio, Gifted Cheer gives boys and girls with disabilities the opportunity to develop gross motor skills, coordinate movement and dance, and show their school spirit as a full-fledged cheer squad supported by the Baler Cheer students. The Gifted Cheer students cheer at football and basketball games in the fall and winter, and wear their own uniforms, complete with bows, and jackets.

Members of the school’s cheerleading squad stand next to or behind the Gifted Cheerleaders, if needed, helping them with their movements and offering encouragement.

Baler Buckaroos Rodeo

Begun in 2016-17 by SBHS instructional aide and alumna Danielle Craig with help from FFA (Future Farmers of America) and community sponsors, general education students help students with disabilities enjoy modified rodeo events including goat tail un-tying, single-stake stick horse races, dummy roping and boot and hat races.

“You really see involvement from our general ed population, including adults and students,” Cobb says. “FFA students are teaching and nurturing. You have general ed peers that are so into sharing their roping experience and you have special education students with cowboy hats excited to participate. We have a large agricultural community, but our (Life Skills) kids don’t typically get access to that. With every activity in the rodeo, it builds acceptance, understanding and empathy.”

Happy Cup

Based on an idea from social media, Happy Cup is a campus beverage and snack service run by the Special Education Department, whose students make drinks and snacks to sell to staff around campus.

“This helps students learn job skills for when they graduate,” said  Maura Forbush Baler alumna-turned Special Education teacher. “They learn how to bake, how to make simple drinks, how to identify and count money and how to use good customer service skills.”

Delivering the product helps the students learn their way around campus and understand directions and street safety. Forbush said every student shares roles such as cart pusher, beverage dispenser, pastry identifier, cash register operator and hostess/host.

“Because there are so many different jobs, the students must learn how to work together as a team,” she says.

Cobb says Happy Cup also helps campus staff members improve their communications skills with students with disabilities.

“When you meet a student who doesn’t speak and uses a communication device, you don’t know what to say,” she notes. “The more our kids talk to others and the more people learn to interact with people who have different needs than they do, they learn that everyone is the same.”

Life Skills Prom

For the past seven years, the school’s Associated Student Body has helped coordinate a Prom for the Life Skills program, complete with food provided by the school’s food services department, a slide show and decorations by Circle of Friends, and decorations and music provided by ASB. Students with and without disabilities attend, as general education students are encouraged to ask students in the Life Skills program to the dance.

Raymond Andrade, who is a new special education instructional aide, helped start the Prom when he was a student at SBHS.

“When a parent finds out they have a child with a disability, they may wonder if their child will go to Prom, drive a car or get married,” milestones otherwise may be taken for granted, Cobb says. Life Skills Prom becomes a milestone event in which students with disabilities can participate and have as a lifelong memory.

“It’s really moving,” Cobb says.

Gifted Soccer

The newest inclusion effort on campus is Gifted Soccer, which senior varsity soccer player and peer teacher Mariana Magana created to give students with disabilities the opportunity to play a competitive game in the main campus quad– complete with a cheering section of students on their lunch break. Magana and other members of the soccer team set up goals for the squad and give them red and white jerseys for the games, which are scheduled throughout the Spring semester.

At the first game, a DJ provided pre-game music and a large crowd cheered the players’ every move, with the varsity soccer squad always nearby to help direct the action.

“The continuum of inclusion for students with severe disabilities is beneficial for all demographics on campus: students with disabilities, general education peers and adults,” Cobb says. “This is not a school-driven situation. Everyone is in it together and inspired to do so. No one is required to have done any of these amazing things, they are just so incredible and so giving.”

San Benito High School District Superintendent Shawn Tennenbaum, a former special education teacher himself, says the district has adopted four principles “that provide a foundation for educational experiences in and out of the classroom: rigor, relevance, relationships, and inclusion. In every sense of the word, we are striving to operate by these foundational principles, and our inclusive school environment provides all of these.”

Tennenbaum said that the district and its Board of Trustees “could not be more proud” of how the inclusion model is woven into the school culture.

“Our hope is that other schools and districts will embrace an inclusive environment for all students, thus helping society as a whole,” he says.



Founded in 1875, San Benito High School is the largest, comprehensive high school in the county, serving nearly 3,000 students. Our mission is to educate all students to their highest potential so they will have the greatest range of personal options upon graduation.