- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Every morning at Century High School, Carly Amundson looks forward to joining her group of friends for lunch in the cafeteria.

“It’s the highlight of her day,” said her mother, Brenda.

Carly Amundson, who has Down syndrome, used to eat alone with an aide. This school year marks a significant change for the sophomore as she takes part in a new program that partners students with disabilities with peer mentors in and out of class.

She is one of 21 mentees in the program, the Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/1Q1ozGk ) reported. Several times a week, she and other classmates with disabilities in Century’s social skills course spend the period alongside students without disabilities enrolled in the school’s new peer-to-peer leadership course.

Together, they do activities. The students split into small groups earlier this month and divvied up the contents of M&M; bags by color. They went around the circle naming their favorite TV shows, foods and musicians - the topic determined by the color of candy.

Senior Hannah Sand, one of the mentors, listed off as many of her favorite musicians as she had green M&Ms;: “Katy Perry, Maroon 5, Justin Bieber.”

“I’m going to his concert,” interjected Elizabeth Romanick, one of the mentees.

Both sprouted smiles as they bonded over their mutual admiration for the pop singer.

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The peer-to-peer program launched fall semester after several parents of students with disabilities approached the school seeking ways to make events more accessible to their kids, said Sara Bohrer, a special education instructor who teaches the peer-to-peer leadership class for mentors.

Parents, teachers and administrators collaborated to develop the program.

Teachers approached students taking courses in medical-related careers and psychology, as well as members of the suicide prevention group Sources of Strength. Bohrer encouraged those with an interest to sign up for her peer-to-peer leadership class.

On days when mentors are not interacting with students in the social skills course, they learn about disabilities and undergo training.

Outside of class, they are each required to spend one hour per week with a mentee during the school day - usually eating together or tutoring.

Senior Marco Curzio typically has lunch with mentees and sometimes invites them to Five Guys Burgers and Fries. The mentor’s friends, who are not a part of peer to peer, often come along.

“We have a great time,” he said.

The mentors also spend 15 hours outside of school with a mentee each semester. Most dedicate far more time than required.

Brenda Amundson said her daughter had never been invited by a classmate to activities away from school until this year.

The mother tried taking her to football games, but the noise bothered her.

This fall, however, Carly Amundson attended a game with friends she made through peer to peer.

“She was laughing. She wasn’t plugging her ears. She was clapping along and cheering,” Brenda Amundson said. “I would never see her do that with me.”

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Those involved in the program want to see the school’s culture become more inclusive.

The students plan to launch a schoolwide campaign next month called “Spread the word to end the word.” They will discourage people from saying the offensive “R-word” used as an insult or to describe people with disabilities.

Bohrer said she knows some students without disabilities want to reach out to those with disabilities but don’t know how.

She hopes peer to peer can bridge that gap as the mentors talk about their experiences with others outside the program.

Already, she has seen promising signs, such as at a pep rally earlier this year.

“One of the mentees grabbed the microphone and just thanked the whole student body for making her feel like a part of the school,” she said.

Many mentors say the mentor-mentee relationship has evolved into friendships.

Sand frequently texts Romanick and other mentees to coordinate times to hang out.

“Liz (Romanick) and I go get coffee a lot at Starbucks,” she said. “And we went prom dress shopping.”

She said she feels she has become more patient and understanding since starting the class last fall.

Romanick has made a good friend in Sand and others in the program.

She hopes to become a music producer one day and encourages her friends to follow their passions.

“I want them to set their minds to do anything,” she said. “Don’t stop what you’re doing.”

Curzio said his experience as a mentor prompted him to apply for a part-time job with Pride, Inc.

“I wanted to work somewhere helping people, and this class opened a door,” he said.

He now mentors kids with disabilities ages 5 to 19 after school and on weekends.

A week ago, he and others in the peer-to-peer class accompanied mentees to Century’s winter formal. The girls got together first to do each other’s hair and makeup.

Curzio said some mentees had never attended a school dance.

“They were just dancing and grooving,” he said. “It was a really fun time. You could just see them smiling from ear to ear.”

Carly Amundson was among those in the group. Her mom said, without the peer-to-peer program, her daughter would likely not have typical teenage experiences like attending a formal.

“Can you imagine going through high school and never finding your crowd?” Brenda Amundson asked.

That’s a worry her daughter, who has two years left at Century, isn’t going to face.

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com


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