- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

SHERIDAN, Wyo. (AP) - A physical education class at Sheridan Junior High School geared toward students with disabilities has been challenging and engaging students since it started three years ago.

But the class might just do more for the peer helpers who enroll as classroom assistants than it does for the PE students themselves, teacher Kale Rager thinks.

“We have some amazing kiddos in our school that do kind and gracious things for others on a daily basis, and as their teacher, I just get to witness those moments and see how awesome a 13- or 14-year-old can be,” Rager said.

Berkley Smith, a peer helper in eighth grade, likes cardio workout days when they turn on the radio.

“I work with Stevie most of the time,” Smith said. “And there’s this one song that always comes on and she starts laughing so hard, and it’s really cool to see.”

Smith added that Stevie signs with her hands to say “mom” when the song - “Girl on Fire” - plays, so Smith wonders if her mother likes the song, too.

“All of us like to contribute and those kids contribute a lot to this class,” Rager said, of peer helpers like Smith. “It would not run as smoothly without them.”

She added that peer helpers get to build friendships and challenge themselves.

For instance, they learn how to better communicate with students who have limited speech, or they get to know the students one-on-one so they understand how to “push them in a supportive way,” in Rager’s words.

Getting comfortable working with individuals with disabilities is an important process, Rager said, and one that adults often struggle with. The peer helpers in her class have impressed her.

BENEFITS FOR THE STUDENTS

Of course, the class offers the opportunity to build strength, coordination and endurance for those students who take it for the exercise. The goal is to adjust activities done in general education PE classes so they fit with the varying needs of the adapted PE students, while still offering a challenge.

On Mondays the students play games such as modified soccer. Tuesdays are dedicated to cardio, Wednesdays to climbing and Thursdays to dancing. On Fridays, they swim.

Rager said Thursdays are a weekly highlight for sixth-grader Elise Hahn.

“‘I’m a dancing machine,’ she says,” Rager recounted.

The class is in its third year and it borrows from a similar adapted PE course that Sheridan High School has taught for several years.

For seventh-grader Larqin Duca, the class is also an opportunity to make friends and try new things. She was well acquainted with a ropes course the class was tackling on Wednesday, but only because she’s now in her second year of the class. Last year, Duca said, the rope-climbing challenge was a first.

So was the class ski trip to Red Lodge Mountain Resort in Montana on Feb. 12.

“It’s definitely the best day of work all year,” Rager said. “It’s just awesome.”

On that day, the class loads a bus and drives three hours up to the Montana ski hill for a day on the slopes. Peer helpers go along as well. The outing is a favorite among students and staff alike.

Rager hopes that once Antelope Butte Ski and Recreation Area reopens, the students might be able to make more frequent ski trips and cut down on travel costs at the same time.

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Information from: The Sheridan (Wyo.) Press, http://www.thesheridanpress.com/

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