Originally published Nov. 8, 2019 in The Bemidji Pioneer.
By Jordan Shearer
It wasn’t long after the school bus pulled up to the bowling alley in Bemidji that the friendly competition began among the high school students. Taking over a slew of lanes, they quickly began racking up their points on the scoreboards, helping each other when needed and watching who was pulling ahead.
Unlike many PE classes, though, this one had students from both general education and special education programs. It may be a relatively new way of having class, but their teacher, Jackie Stoffel, is helping lead the way to integrate the two groups of students in Bemidji.
Busy answering the occasional question and handing out high fives at the bowling alley, Stoffel was recognized in October by The Minnesota Society of Health and Physical Educators with the MNSHAPE George Hanson Award.
The award is meant to honor a teacher or professional for “outstanding services and contributions” in the developmental adapted physical education profession (DAPE), according to a notice about Stoffel’s recognition.
“She is well deserved,” said Jake Johnson, a teacher from East Grand Forks who nominated Stoffel for the award. “She does a lot for DAPE in the community of Bemidji. She really works hard with the kids and deserves to be recognized.”
Stoffel teaches a mainstream physical education class, but she also teaches the unified class, meaning it’s filled with students from both general education and special education programs. She’s also a coach for the Special Olympics program at the high school.
For Nash Tietz, a senior in special education, having Stoffel as a teacher works well since she is able to recognize when they need to slow down or when they need to see a new perspective on a situation.
“She understands us,” Tietz said about Stoffel in the time between his turns at the bowling alley. “She knows how to say, ‘OK, you need a break,’ or ‘OK, let’s try this…’”
Though the students went bowling on Tuesday, they do a number of activities as part of the class. There’s a swimming component. They do basketball at times — anything to keep themselves up and active. They also use the class as practice for their competitions in Special Olympics.
Stoffel also organizes a formal dance for the students in special education at the high school.
For Stoffel’s unified class, there’s an extra component for the gen-ed students apart from the actual activities. That’s where they learn about interacting with the students in special education. They learn about inclusion. They learn about disability awareness. They even do some simulations to experience, for example, what it would be like to be visually impaired.
At one of the far-end lanes of the alley, general education senior Kaitlynn Youngblood was holding a bowling ball to help one of her classmates in special education work her fingers into the slots. After her classmate launched the ball down the lane, Youngblood began cheering her on with boundless energy.
“I love the idea of it,” Youngblood said about having a unified class. “It’s a really good learning experience. It opens your eyes a lot.”
Stoffel is in her fifth year at Bemidji High School. Before that, she spent four years at Northern Elementary.
Stoffel said Special Olympics moved to a unified model and then began writing curriculum for schools as well. More and more schools are beginning to offer the concept of a unified class, but it has only been around for the past few years.
Stoffel essentially piloted the program at Bemidji High School. Stoffel’s husband also works in physical education at the high school. If they had classes at the same time, they would bring their students in special education and general education together.
It took a couple of years to implement the design of the unified class into the school’s curriculum. This school term marks the first time that students could formally take the unified class as an official course offering at Bemidji High School.
While it took a while to get the course into the curriculum, it also took a little while to build interest among the general education students about taking part in the unified Special Olympics. Once they brought the concept of the unified class around, the students already had a feel for the idea.
For Stoffel and her students, the work has paid off.
“They learn quite a bit from one another . . . our kids in gen-ed, they learn so much about inclusion and kindness and patience and empathy,” Stoffel said. “It took a little while to get those barriers broke down, but now kids are loving it.”