The World Next Door

First thing Tuesday morning Allan Yu’s 5th graders were putting the finishing touches on their version of the spiritual, “I’ve Got Peace Like a River,” complete with hand motions and gestures to accompany the lyrics.

“Ok, friends, let’s go through our songs one more time,” Allan says, “and when you sing your songs today, the more animated, the better,” Allan adds. Six students standing together at one end of the room lead their classmates through the final rehearsal.

Today, Allan and his students, along with Associate Teacher Leslie Troy, will make their first trip to the James J. McBride Special Education Center. The school is a short walk from Wildwood’s elementary campus across Mitchell Avenue, but a world away for most of these students.  McBride is one of 18 public schools in Los Angeles exclusively serving students with severe disabilities, including cerebral palsy, Downs Syndrome, and autism.  With their visit today, Allan’s students will add to the 20-year history of our oldest elementary students forging relationships with their younger counterparts at McBride.

As we cross the street, Allan’s students show their excitement with animated conversation about what they think McBride will be like. I ask two of Allan’s students, Marlo I. and Ryan M. about what they’re thinking about their first visit. “We had a chance to meet the McBride kids at the end of last year,” Marlo tells me. “They came to Wildwood to spend time with last year’s 5th graders and the teachers introduced us to them.”  Ryan tells me that he’s learned that the McBride students also have peer models in their classroom. “They are with some pre-schoolers who are the McBride kids’ siblings,” Ryan explains. “Their parents send them to McBride with their older brothers or sisters so that they can have a strong relationship with them.”

McBride and Wildwood students

McBride Teacher, Kara Guastella (far right), leads her students and their Wildwood friends in song.

Entering McBride’s front door, the students become silent and close their ranks into a single file line.  The halls at McBride are wide and the walls bare— it looks very different than Wildwood. As we turn the corner approaching our host classroom, we see the hallway is lined with dozens of walkers and wheelchairs, arranged in two rows along the walls. The students fix their gazes on the collection of assistive devices, and then, on each other, as the excitement turns to a bit of anxiety.

The classroom door opens and out steps our host McBride teacher, Kara Guastella. She greets Allan and Leslie by name, and the Wildwood students with a welcoming smile. “Our students have been looking forward all morning to meeting you,” she says.

We enter Kara’s room and see her students, who range in age from 5 to 7 and their peer models, arrayed in a semi-circle looking in our direction.  “Please sit down next to a new friend,” Kara asks Allan’s students.  The 5th graders pair up and seat themselves next to McBride students, introducing themselves with smiles and kind greetings.

5th grader, Ryan M., bonds with his new McBride friend, Ari.

Kara leads the whole group in a song about the alphabet and the Wildwood students take their new McBride friends by the hands and help them clap along to the music. The ice is broken.  I watch as, with each passing song, the McBride students gaze more intently at their new Wildwood friends, who respond with smiles, encouragement and hugs.  Allan comes over to me and speaks about how these connections can often extend beyond these regular visits. “We’ve had students who go and spend time with their McBride friends on days that Wildwood is off of school,” he says. “And there are others who, even now as 8th or 9th graders, still come back on their own time and work with Kara’s students.”

After the Wildwood students share the songs that they’d prepared for their McBride friends, it’s time to head out to the play yard to have some more fun. The Wildwood students begin to realize that there are no quick transitions at McBride. The teacher and classroom aides have to help students get their walkers and some put on helmets to avoid injury.

Out on the play yard, Wildwood 5th grader Chloe S. spends time with her new McBride friend, Solomon. “Show her your stuff, Solomon,” teacher Kara says.  Each step in his walker is labored and unsteady, but Solomon, who has cerebral palsy, meets each one with a beaming smile and look of satisfaction.

When it’s time to go, the Wildwood students say goodbye and give hugs, getting ready to walk back across the street. Over many years, our classes’ visits to McBride have given hundreds of students opportunities to practice caring for others and respect, two of Wildwood’s Interpersonal Life Skills so essential for gaining a strong sense of self, and social agency.

Over many trips back and forth across this street, Wildwood students bring back with them a growing understanding that the McBride students aren’t really in a different world at all but rather are very much a part of our community.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning

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