The Saline Connecting program is one of a kind.
Connecting is a class at Saline High School taught by teacher Patricia Fair. In the class, students are assigned a location somewhere throughout the district where they will do anything from swim in the pool every morning with the student who have special needs to helping kids with disabilities do their work at school.
“I think it is a win-win for everybody,” Fair said. “For the Connecting students who take the class, especially in Saline where it is not very diverse, they get a whole different population, so they get to make new connections. For the kids with disabilities, it is a great chance for them to be with their peers and to just have that interaction.”
The program was started roughly 20 years ago by Kevin Musson who was a teacher consultant at Saline and is now the principal of Pleasant Ridge Elementary, Fair said.
“He started it based on a program at Oakland University,” Fair said. “They had a peer to peer thing like we have so then he brought it back to this district.”
The program started off very small with only about five students taking the class in total, Fair said.
“It just got really big in the last six years,” Fair said. “I had 12 kids in my first Connecting class, now there is 32 in each class.”
Roughly 70 to 80 students a semester are enrolled in Connecting with about 200 students for the year, Fair said.
Since the program has really taken off, there is a real demand throughout the district for Connecting students.
“If the teacher has 10 kids in the room but they all have different needs and goals, then she can assign a Connecting student to one or two of the kids,” Fair said. “Then she can focus on others and they can rotate and there is just more direct instruction and more one on one time.”
“In special ed, you want all of the help you can get,” Fair said. “I always swear that I could just retire and auction the kids off because they are held to very high expectations and the teachers have seen how good these kids are and what they can do.”
Fair said holding her students to high standards is crucial for the program’s existence.
“It’s super important and is my biggest priority,” Fair said. “It is about good judgment. I look at it as if they were my kids. Would I want you to babysit my kid? Much less my kid who maybe can’t speak up for themselves. I even take it into the weekend. If you are doing things on the weekend that don’t represent good judgment, then I don’t want you working with our kids.”
Students are constantly reminded they are setting an example with their actions, Fair said.
“You are role modeling,” Fair said. “So if you are at the middle school they think what you are doing is cool. It is a big responsibility to leave the school so I need to be able to trust you will do what you need to do.”
Fair said she believe Saline has the premiere special education program in the state of Michigan.
“I think it just leadership and our staff just cares a lot,” Fair said. “Part of it is there is not a lot of diversity here, so people with disabilities is one of our most diverse populations that we can focus on.”
While other schools offer programs similar to Connecting, none go to the extent of Saline’s program, Fair said.
“A lot of schools have similar programs but they aren’t during the school day, they are extracurriculars, whereas Saline’s is actually through the school.”
Over the years in Saline schools, there have been many efforts to convince students to stop using the word “retarded.”
“Saying the R-word is offensive,” Fair said. “It is not the word itself, it is the thought behind it. If you think about it, when you say the word you are saying you feel stupid or if you did something wrong or did something slow, so basically you are saying that people with special needs are stupid, they are slow, they’re dumb, they are meaningless or whatever you use it for and there are so many better words.”
Fair said when the Connecting students start working with the people with disabilities, they learn quickly how the word can be extremely harmful.
“When they first come to this class they probably either used it or wouldn’t say anything if somebody did,” Fair said. “By the end of the class, they will usually always speak up and say ‘we don’t say that word.’”
It is not only the Connecting students and the special needs students who benefit from the program, Fair said.
“One of the groups who benefits the most from the Connecting program is the parents of the kids with special needs,” Fair said. “They are so thankful because they never thought their kids would have a buddy, a regular peer. It is just a real, true friendship and I think that is very special for parents of kids with special needs.”
There are many amazing opportunities that come with being a part of the Connecting program, Fair said.
“The holiday shopping trip is amazing,” Fair said. “We take like 200 kids to the mall, usually 100 kids with special needs and 100 Connecting students and go on a shopping spree. The Special Olympics, with the track meet, that is amazing. We do so many cool things, but the everyday little things are so cool.”
Fair said when students start her class, they come with wide-ranging expectations.
“I have some kids who come in here in freshman year because they heard about it from a brother or sister and they want to try it right away,” Fair said. “Then I have some kids and these are usually my favorite kids, the ones who just took the class because they needed one to take. They come into it with no expectations and I think they are the ones who are truly changed the most.”
Fair said she has seen Connecting completely change some of her students’ career paths.
“I have so many kids who are not sure on their career choices and then after taking this class decide to go into education or special education,” Fair said. “I have a lot of kids who have an undiscovered talent. They may not be the best athlete or the best in grades but they come here and find their niche. It is pretty empowering because who doesn’t want to be a rock star? And Connecting I think makes everyone feel like a rock star.”