Originally published Dec. 18, 2017 in the Record-Journal

By Matthew Zabierek, Record-Journal staff

WALLINGFORD — Lyman Hall High School junior Meredith DeNegris plans to pursue a career in special education after she graduates, but the 16-year-old is already helping special education students at her school.

For her capstone project, DeNegris created  “Unified Physical Education” —  a physical education course tailored for special education students.

The new course will pair regular education students with special education students to teach them skills, said Anthony Loomis, health and wellness curriculum resource teacher.

Lyman“I wanted to create a PE program for (special education) students so they have a specialized class based around their exercise needs and abilities, because a lot of their needs are not met in the regular PE class,” DeNegris said.

Special education students are currently mixed into regular physical education classes with about 20 to 25 other students and complete modified lesson plans.

“You’re going to get the students that are in need of that differentiated instruction in an environment that doesn’t feel like it’s going to separate them from the regular education class,” said Lyman Hall physical education teacher Kahseim Outlaw, who will teach the new course beginning next school year.

General education students will also benefit, Loomis said, “because they’re learning how to work with special education students and the best way to learn something is to teach someone else.”

The program was approved by the Board of Education this week.

DeNegris said she was inspired by her mother, who works as a speech pathologist helping students with disabilities. For her capstone project, a service project that students are required to complete to graduate, DeNegris wanted to “do a project helping special ed students, but I didn’t know exactly what.”

Two  Lyman Hall special education teachers gave DeNegris the idea to create a unified physical education course, something that has already been started in other Connecticut school districts, including Glastonbury, Loomis said.

DeNegris presented the new course to the Board of Education earlier this month. Board member Michael Votto told DeNegris he wishes she could “give that presentation to our legislators because I think more people need to hear your ideas.”

Board member Karen Hlavac said the course is a “great idea because it’s an opportunity to integrate students with special needs with their typical peers.”

Loomis said the new class will ideally have between 18 and 24 students, with two regular education students for every special education student. Two students will be assigned to work with one special education student under the supervision of Outlaw.

Sheehan physical education teacher Mike Tyrrell piloted a similar program at Sheehan last year and “it went very well,’ Loomis said. DeNegris has worked with Tyrrell in coming up with lesson plan ideas, Loomis said.

DeNegris said the class will aim to prepare students to enter the workforce after graduating by teaching them physical movements they may perform in the workplace – for example, teaching students how to properly squat in case they work a job that requires them to lift items.

“The goal is to keep it as close to a regular education class as possible with modifications put in,” Outlaw said. “We’ll have an opportunity to tailor our lessons to specific things.”

Regular education students will be able to earn capstone credits by participating in the class, which will meet every other day for a semester, Loomis said.

DeNegris, who recently held a meeting for students, said there is a lot of interest among her classmates.

“This is such a positive thing that we’re expecting a lot of kids to be interested,” Loomis said.

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