High school teachers are real playmakers to growing inclusive culture – Newton Daily News

Two teachers at Newton High School have been leading the charge to make the district a more inclusive environment for their special education students, and in the process are making general education kids more accepting of and, in many ways, championing their fellow peers.

Lori Gilmore and Tina Stammeyer, both level three special education teachers, have a combined 58 years experience at Newton Community School District. Together, they organize The Big Game, an annual basketball event where special education students and Cardinal athletes create a true school spirit experience.

Originally founded by teacher Jill Stanton about 10 years ago, The Big Game started off very small with only a few classrooms attending the event, Stammeyer said. As years went on, attendance grew as more general education students found out about the game. Other student groups wanted to get involved, too.

Special education students are assisted at The Big Game by the same peer helpers they interact with at PE classes. When the pandemic threatened to cancel everything, the senior class demanded only two things: a graduation ceremony and the right to hold The Big Game.

In addition to having the pep band, cheerleaders and dance team on board, everyone in the high school is invited to participate in the student section to cheer on their fellow classmates with chants or show off homemade signs. It’s an amplified basketball game, but its impact has bigger and profound implications.

“I was watching the student section, and just the way that they cheer and they do all the things they would at any other game,” Stammeyer said. “…Lori gives a speech at the beginning of the game about ‘Cardinal kindness’ and being accepting of your peers and being an advocate for them.”

Cardinal kindness is a theme that goes both ways, Gilmore said. The special education students made signs for the cross-country team and dance team when they competed in state. Those student athletes treat them with kindness in return, whether it is inside or outside of school grounds.

The general education population do play a role in special education students’ experience in school. Gilmore said the general education kids are “so inclusive” of the special education kids, and she believes The Big Game has helped bridge those connections.

To be a true Cardinal means treating others with respect and dignity. From the moment freshmen walk through the doors, Gilmore said they are told by teachers that Newton is a very inclusive high school that treats the special education students “with the utmost respect.” That approach can have a wider effect.

“I think they start to realize: ‘I need to treat my own friends this way, not just the special ed kids. I need to treat my own friends with respect and be kind to everybody,’” Gilmore said, noting The Big Game reinforces those feelings. “…They all want to be part of it to show the kids they are so accepted.”

And it shows when there are more peer helpers than special education students, Stammeyer said.

The way general education students and special education students interact in Newton apparently does not go unnoticed by visiting schools. When the special education students participate in a dance routine with the Pacesetters, Gilmore said others have told her that would not fly at another district.

Parents of special education students who are not yet enrolled in the high school will worry about their child entering the larger secondary education building. The Big Game alleviates some of those fears, Stammeyer said, particularly parents whose child is in middle school. The game shows them an inviting culture.

“It’s not a scary place just because it’s high school,” Stammeyer said. “Back in the day when Lori and I first started, our kids stayed very much in our room. There wasn’t a whole lot of being out in the hallway and doing things… But now it’s getting the kids out and pushing them out of their comfort zone.”

Gilmore and Stammeyer have dedicated several years of teaching to their special education students, as have some of their paraeducators. In that time, they said society has made great gains in acceptance of people with special needs. They both decided long ago their kids need to be a part of the high school.

“We cannot seclude them from it, and we have to be a part of the high school,” Gilmore said. “High school is fun! There is so much fun that goes on here with activities and sports. Last year we had kids that were in the school play for the first time … We have got to be a part of all of it.”

The Big Game exemplifies that approach perfectly. The gymnasium erupts in applause for every scored point, and in enthusiastic boos when a foul is called. Crowd response tells Gilmore and Stammeyer that their students are included, acknowledged, celebrated and loved by their fellow peers.

That’s a win for Newton.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

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