Houston looks to expand P.E. for special needs students

jmink@macon.comOctober 22, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- For Kristilyn Ferrer, physical education classes mean more than jumping jacks and kickball games.

When asked about gym class, 17-year-old Ferrer beams and shows off her homemade bracelet, which spells the name Dillon -- her gym class partner at Houston County High School. For special needs students like Ferrer, Houston County schools’ adapted physical education classes can make a huge difference, teachers say.

Now the school system has brought in a district-wide adapted physical education specialist, Brenda Arnett, who hopes to expand the program, particularly in the elementary schools. Arnett took the position at the beginning of this school year.

Houston County has offered adapted physical education classes for years, and 14 of the district’s 38 schools now implement the classes. The program focuses on special needs students, giving them specific activities depending on their abilities and pairing them with other students, who play games and socialize with them.

It’s not uncommon for special needs students -- with the help of their peers -- to participate in the same sports and exercises as other students during gym, Arnett said. Students will tell one another which way to run during kickball or help swing the bat during softball. Students volunteer to partner with their peers who are in special education classes.

“For me, socialization is (helpful) for the kids,” Arnett said. “They’re going to be better in the classroom.”

In Allison Averett’s special education class, students who normally would not enjoy gym class now look forward to it, Averett said.

“They just absolutely love it,” she said. “They learn good social skills and make friends for a lifetime.”

Arnett’s goal is to create more gym partnerships between students in elementary schools. Some elementary schools have a type of adapted physical education class, but larger gym class sizes and different class schedules make it more challenging to give special education students a gym partner, she said. Special needs students get gym time in elementary school, but they are often separated from other students, she said.

“We’re trying to get it to where those partners go in there more,” Arnett said about special education gym time. “But it’s hard to do that.”

Children not only partner with special education students in gym, but they also interact with them socially and in regular classes. Still, teachers say the adapted physical education program is vital because it’s important for students -- even those with severe disabilities -- to get some type of exercise each day.

“A lot of them, they sit in that chair all day and don’t get a lot of activity,” Arnett said.

Adapted physical education can be as simple as giving students a ball to squeeze. As she walked down the hallway Thursday, Arnett met a boy who has very limited mobility. The boy grinned as Arnett handed him a ball, which he was able to squeeze for a few seconds. That small activity makes a difference, Arnett said, and is considered adapted gym time.

Arnett recalls working with a student who had a seizure disorder. His gym partner would roll a ball to him -- one of few activities the boy could do -- during physical education classes, Arnett said.

“It meant something to him because he wanted to go to P.E.,” she said.

And the experience is often just as beneficial to the partner as the special education student. Dillon Wood has been an adapted physical education partner for the past year, and he mainly works with Ferrer.

“I just like the kids,” said Wood, 17, a senior from Warner Robins. “I like hanging out with them and making their day.”

During a normal gym class, Wood plays a variety of games, from bowling to kickball, with Ferrer and other special education students, he said.

“That I can make another human being’s day better by just hanging out with them, it makes my day,” he said.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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