May 14, 2018
Senior Max Jensen pushes through the gym’s heavy doors. It’s 9:39 a.m. and the bell rings, signaling the start of third period at Beckman High School. The gym fills up with students chatting with one another as they slowly make their way to their assigned Physical Education (PE) classes. Mrs. Stacy Colón, one of the PE teachers, coaches a Life Fitness class that includes both students with special needs and students in general education programs. Today, she is still in the locker room as her class sits in groups of four to five, awaiting their instructions for their daily warm-up. Each day, the class begins with conversation openers, such as “how was your day?” followed by a flowing discussion of the day’s events. Routines are important for this class, as familiarity with the days’ agenda reduces anxiety for certain students.
The freshmen, sophomores and juniors wear their PE uniforms—light gray t-shirts and navy blue shorts or sweatpants—yet one of their members stands out in the crowd. Max moves around the gym, donning a cream-white sweater and jeans. He is the only student not wearing a PE uniform and the only student not seated. As he strides through the gym, he pauses every so often to talk to friends in the groups.
Max isn’t very hard to miss. At 5’11, he towers above most of the students in the gym. His muted red hair only caps off his height, making him even more prominent. As the only senior, he’s used to standing out. Even more so, he’s wholly integrated with the crowd. As he should be—Max has been an indispensable part of Mrs. Colón’s integrated PE class since its inception during his sophomore year.
At Beckman High School, students are required to take PE for two years. Most wouldn’t consider taking the class for all four years. Not many students are fans of changing in locker rooms and wearing a PE uniform more than they are required to. But Max loves it—not necessarily the outfit, but the people wearing them. “I realized there was a lot of heart and purpose in this class,” Max says. “I felt I could make more of an impact here.”
As Mrs. Colón’s trusted Teacher Assistant (TA), Max definitely makes an impact on the class. All throughout third period, Max not only enjoys spending time with his peers, but he helps students with special needs enjoy the various activities too. Some days, his presence alone offers the comfort the students need to engage in the activities. He takes notes, attendance, mile times, and completes other various tasks. Although he’s not as involved during times like this, his warm company is always a constant. Other days, he’s running amongst them in soccer games or obstacle courses. The exhilaration that Max adds to the class nestles in the hearts of his peers.
In turn, the students reflect the effort Max and the aides put forth. Pauline, with her slew of jokes and playful banter, brings cheerfulness and humor to the class. Ava likes to tease and fool around with her classmates. Manny is the most motivated, as seen through his attempt to keep track of everyone’s names and birthdays. Gilly comforts friends with her affection and warm hugs.Emma loves holding hands and admiring the jewelry her classmates wear. Eric, who recently underwent knee surgery, effortlessly participates in arm exercises as he wears a brace. Garrett uses a walker to move around the gym. He tries his hardest even when he doesn’t use it during step-up practice. Although he doesn’t talk much, everyone knows his iconic smile when he’s proud of what he accomplishes. The kids’ energy and willingness to participate always creates a positive atmosphere.
Mrs. Colón presides over the class, blowing into the plastic whistle hanging around her neck to get the group’s attention. She is tall, with straight dark-brown hair that she usually wears in a medium-high ponytail. Her rectangular-rimmed glasses balance on her nose as she moves about the gym checking in with groups and shouting out the next set of instructions. She came up with the idea of an integrated PE class while working with the district’s adapted PE teacher. “He and I always tossed around the ideas about how we can better include our students with special needs and he said to me one day, ‘Why don’t you create a separate game from what you’re doing and ask some of the general education students to come over and play a modified game with these students?’ And then the idea sort of blew up from there,” says Mrs. Colón. So the class began in 2015—a group of kids in the general education program was randomly placed in the integrated class, and, as luck would have it, sophomore Max Jensen found himself at the start of his journey.
Not much has changed in the activities and games the students participated in the last few years. There is one noticeable difference: Mrs. Colón and Max have both found more confidence in the class. With time and and little bit of experimentation, Mrs. Colón has learned that she can place more responsibility upon the kids in the general education program. Max, for his part, grew from a shy and reserved kid to someone far more outgoing, with direction and passion in life. As Max continued in the class, however, he blossomed from someone who did not enjoy exercise and was too shy to participate into a more confident, helpful and involved student. “I think he improved in every aspect of his Life Fitness class. From the beginning until now, he’s definitely more outgoing and it’s nice to see that he’s more confident than he was,” says Mrs. Colón.
Max would be the first to tell you that the PE inclusion class has impacted his life more than the impact he has made upon some of the students. “It’s a nice break from the day and it’s such a positive environment. It can be a little nerve-wracking at first with all the leadership and responsibility that comes with it, but it’s genuinely a positive experience,” he explains.
“He’s just a good-hearted kid,” Mrs. Colón says, her smile widening as she talks about him. “It’s not very often that people give up their electives to come back to PE, or to take an extra class when they don’t need it. He could probably go home early, but he stays to have this class in his schedule. It’s really meaningful to me.”
Class begins with the warm-up; the gym echoes with the rumble of exercising students as the rubber soles of 46 pairs of shoes thud and screech against the hardwood floor. Running in place, jumping jacks, high-knees. Mrs. Colón blows her whistle and the students chaotically switch from one exercise to the next, and then the next, each switch followed by a brief surge in the noise as the class struggles to find a rhythm. The students perform their warm-ups in groups of four or five, adult aides assisting kids with walkers while student aides in the general education program motivate those on a modified exercise program. As some kids with special needs begin to get distracted or struggle with the movement, words of encouragement from their counterparts join the din.
“You’ve got this!” “That’s right! Keep going!” “Yes! That’s how you do it!”
Class begins in this fashion most days: a jumble of kindness and chaos as worlds collide when two groups of kids leading different lives share smiles and tales of how their day is going. Such an environment in this class is conducive to the learning needs of kids with disabilities, allowing them a much-needed sense of normalcy. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) contains a provision stating that students receiving special education should be in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Theses students should spend as much time as possible with peers who are considered typical learners. This is accomplished either through mainstreaming classrooms, where students with special needs are placed into general education programs or by inclusion classrooms.
This PE class serves as a partial inclusion class where these kids get a chance to leave the environment of their classroom in Room 316 and befriend other people their age. Programs and classes like this are not common, yet have such a profound impact on all those involved. It is an irreplaceable opportunity for both groups of kids to bridge the gap between people with special needs and those without in a world of needless division.
The shrill screech of a whistle cuts the air and the warm-up comes to an end.
The students are now seated, still in their circles. Max crouches down beside one of the groups, talking animatedly with its members. It is difficult to tell the kids with special needs apart from those without as they continue their lively chatter.
Mrs. Colón dismisses each group to the field so they can go play soccer. She then instructs the class to form two lines in their teams and begin kicking the ball to one another. Alex, one of the students, doesn’t want to participate. “It’s hot,” he says plaintively to Max, who proceeds to help him up and tries to encourage him to join the game. With a little encouragement they both go back to playing the game with the others. Max, with great enthusiasm, helps his team and gives them moral support, a talent he’s always possessed. However, supporting students with special needs was not always something on Max’s radar.
As a child, he wanted to pursue a career in the arts with drawing and painting. That idea quickly faded when he realized that art was too challenging for him to follow.
Then in the summer of seventh grade, Max volunteered in his local church by looking after preschoolers. This began his fascination in working with kids.
The summer before sophomore year, Max found a class he’d never heard of before on his course selection sheet: Life Fitness Reverse Inclusion Class. He was one of the students that was enrolled in Mrs. Colón’s inclusion class without any warning. Little did he know, this class would change the course of his life and his future forever.
Pursuing his interests, Max continued to take care of preschoolers in his church every other Sunday. The summer programs were simply not enough. As he entered his junior year, his passion became clearer. He wanted to minor in psychology, learn about autism and undertake child development and early education. The opportunities seemed limitless.
At the end of his junior year, as he was drafting his college essays, his future occupation became clearer. He knew he wanted to help kids grow, either as an elementary or a special education teacher.
Through Max’s ambitions and his self-growth, he has touched the lives of so many students in the PE class. He has gained the trust and admiration of his peers through his hard-work and perseverance.
“My first impression of Max was: really friendly,” says sophomore Jessica Ark, one of Max’s classmates and a student aide in the inclusion class. “Max is not the type of person where it takes a while to know him. He’ll talk to anyone about anything and he’s really sweet. With one word to describe him, I would say friendly and outgoing—he’s just a really well-rounded and kind person overall.”
As the five-minute bell marks the end of class, the kids prepare to exit the soccer field. Cheers and shouts of “great job” are shared with teammates and opposing players.. Before they file off of the field and head to the locker rooms, the kids give high-fives to their classmates.
The student aides and the teachers stay behind to clean up. Every class ends with a reflection about the day’s events. The student aides consider activities that could be conducted in the future and how to make the class more exciting and inviting for the kids. These conversations fill the student aides with ideas on how to connect more with the kids. Occasionally, these conversations lead to thoughts about college and future careers in supporting students with special needs.
Although he adores what he does for his school community, Max must also focus on the path he will take after high school.
Back at his house, Max sifts through the college acceptance letters on the carpet floor. He brings a cold hand to his warm face, lost in deep thought.
Biola University: Offers Child Development Permits. Close to home but a small campus.
Seattle Pacific: Offers Human Development & Family Studies as a Major. Familiar with the area, beautiful city and close to his dad’s family. However, it’s cold and small.
Samford: A beautiful, large campus but far away and in an unfamiliar place. Offers strong programs for developmental studies. Majors include: Early Childhood, Special Education, Elementary and Elementary Collaborative Education.
He eventually selects Samford as it seems to be the best option to help him reach his goal of working with kids.
In his mind, there is no greater career he could wish to strive for. A career that nurtures those who need it and one that allows him to connect with more students with special needs. Or maybe he will become an elementary teacher, helping young children develop the love and acceptance he feels toward everyone. Or maybe both.
“I would like to try both in my life. I also think it’d be cool to minor in psychology or learn about autism in general, whether it’s helping [students with special needs] or just younger kids.”
With his confirmation to enroll and the excitement of this new chapter revealing itself to him, he knows that he will be ready for whatever life may throw at him.