Four times a week, several students from Ruth Rankin’s sixth grade Southgate Elementary class volunteer to be peer models in the school’s Primary Communications room, a 12:1:4 self-contained classroom. Rankin’s students, who are fondly referred to as “Rankin Rockstars,” provide friendship and learning opportunities for children who have a variety of disabilities including autism, communication delays and intellectual disabilities. Special Education teacher Jessica Coles and speech therapist Dianna Nolan say their intent when they first asked for volunteers was to foster meaningful relationships for their special needs students. What resulted, was much more rewarding than they ever could have imagined.
“Both groups of students laugh, smile and meaningfully connect together,” said Coles and Nolan. “It would be easy to shy away from working with children in the Primary Communications classroom due to their differences; however these volunteers show up with enthusiasm and determination to bond with their buddies.”
A total of 15 students from Rankin’s class work with Coles’ students on a rotating schedule. They work on taking turns, role playing and sharing, computer skills, and reading, while also engaging in activities like scooter races, wagon rides, going on the swing, and arts and crafts. Activities are tailored to the needs of the specific students who are being worked with. The ultimate goal is to assist students in generalizing their skills outside of the special education classroom.
“It really takes a special person to be patient and to take that time to want to interact and play,” said Coles.
“I see the students so excited and happy,” added Nolan. “They’re trying to connect. We’re seeing a spark in a lot of our kids. They’re just so thrilled when Rankin’s Rockstars come through the door.”
Rankin’s students say they get just as much out of the experience as the kids they are spending time with.
“I have a lot of experience with this because my brother has a disability,” said sixth grade student Miles Kear. “When I heard about this, I knew I wanted to sign up.”
“Sometimes when you walk in, one of the kids will just walk up to you and grab your hand. They just love it and they laugh,” added student Faith Malo.
When Rankin’s Rockstars were asked who wants to volunteer again next year, every hand up went up.
“I feel very lucky to be the teacher to whom these children are assigned,” said Rankin. “I think they are incredibly kind and caring.”
“Robert Hensel wrote, “Know me for my abilities, not my disability,” added Coles and Nolan. “Rankin’s Rockstars exemplify this quote and are truly North Colonie kids who care.”