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from the Winter 98 issue
Versión español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Highland Park High School Peer Tutoring Program

by Jenny Schooler, Education Specialist, TSBVI Deafblind Outreach

During my onsite visits with deafblind students this past year, I had the opportunity to visit at Highland Park High School in Dallas. As I visited classrooms and traveled about campus, I was struck by the genuine quality of integration and interactions among the typical high school students and their peers with disabilities. I became very interested in finding out about Highland Park High School's Peer Tutoring Program in hopes of sharing this model with other school districts.

I would like to thank the following people for sharing information about the inception and progress of the Highland Park High School Peer Tutoring Program:

How did it all begin? In 1990, the concept of a peer tutoring program began as a way to implement the least restrictive environment for students with disabilities. Students with disabilities would no longer attend a separate facility, they would start attending their neighborhood high school. Parents of adolescents with disabilities expressed concern that high school students would tease and make fun of their childrens' differences. Highland Park staff began a search for ways to make this change to integration on their campus a positive experience. Their search led them to Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio where a peer tutoring program based out of Utah was modified and receiving community wide success.

The next step in implementing this new program at Highland Park High School was to first meet with a group of student leaders to discuss the idea and test their level of receptiveness. Their reaction was so simple compared to the more complex concerns of the adults. The students responded matter-of-factly that this group of adolescents with disabilities were Highland Park students and why weren't they already at Highland Park High School.

Okay! The student body seemed to be geared up for the change. But what about the time commitments, course credits, and board approval? At first the board approved the new program for one month. Then all the students in the peer tutoring program went to the board with their appeals to extend the program telling their stories of the benefits. An outline of the peer tutor course was submitted to The Texas Education Agency for approval of course credit toward graduation. This waiver for course credit as an Elective course was approved by TEA. Kathy Kelchner, now in Richardson ISD, reports that TEA approved Health course credit for Lake Holland High School's Peer Tutoring Program. Currently they are applying for course credit for the peer tutor program as a Social Studies course. Regardless of the course title (Elective, Health, Social Studies) the response from these high schools and TEA have been positive. In fact the students with disabilities and their typical high school peers have traveled as a team, staying in hotels together, spreading the word to other districts at conferences of the benefits of their peer tutoring program.

How can your district start a peer tutoring program? There are a variety of ways which are described below:

1. Implement the peer tutor program through TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills). Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills is the State adopted curriculum effective September 1, 1998. Look in the TEKS manual to determine which subject area could contain a peer tutor program as part of its course objectives. For example, the involvement in a peer tutor program could be a project within Psychology, Speech, Sociology, or Home Economics.

2. Starting September 1, 1998, State mandated credits for graduation will be 24 credits. However, some districts choose to add credits as an option for local district graduation. For example, your local district may have community service credits that are earned in addition to the state mandated 24 credits. In this case, the local district can name their own peer tutor program (i.e., "Peer Tutor Program," "Peer Assistant Leadership", etc.) objectives, and assign the extra credits.

3. Your district also has the option of applying for a waiver with TEA to request course credits for a specific "peer tutor" course as part of the mandated 24 credits for graduation.

The following questionnaires were used to survey the feelings of some of the students with disabilities and/or their parents plus the comments of the Highland Park High School students. The first questionnaire, designed for the student with disabilities or their parent was completed with the help of Jay who is a junior, Liz who is a graduate of the program, the parent of Robin who is a senior, the parent of a seventeen-year-old boy, and another unnamed student. The second questionnaire was completed with the help of Bryan, Allison, Dustin, Meredith, Natalie, and Elizabeth. Some of these students are in this program for the second year.

Questionnaire Designed for the Student with Disabilities or Their Parent

1. What do you like about the peer tutor program?

Some of the responses included: talking to peers and making friends with them; taking walks with them around the high school during lunch; interacting with the other students; forming new relationships that; making new friends; and getting to choose activities to do together. For example, if the pep rally noise is too much for the student with disabilities, the student and peer may choose to cook.

2. Would you recommend the continuation of this peer tutor program?

There was unanimous agreement that everyone benefitted from the program and that it should be continued. One parent noted, `I would like to see it increased as it benefits everyone involved. It gives the disabled student the opportunity to hang out with kids his own age."

3. Where do you like to go with your high school peer?

Answers included: football games, volleyball, basketball, movies, activities out of school, Bubba's restaurant, McDonalds, Chili's, and to the mall for shopping.

4. Give examples of things you do with your peer. What's your favorite?

Responses included: going to the movies; being flag boy during football season and getting to be on the field and running up and down when touch-downs were made, participating in Special Olympics, P.E, and breaks at the commons; going out to dinner; cooking; shopping for gifts; and playing imitation games.

5. Do you see your peer tutor outside of school hours?

Most of the students felt that they did not see their peers as much as they would like to outside of school hours.

6. Do you feel the peer tutor program is good for you?

All the respondents felt that the program was good for them because " it gives (the student) a chance to be around kids his own age;" the students "learned a lot about (them)selves:" and it provided an opportunity for "making new friends."

7. Do you feel this program benefits the peer tutors?

Again, there was total agreement in this area. " It gives them the opportunity to learn about different disabilities and learn to accept people that may look or talk differently than most of their friends. They may learn understanding and compassion for others with disabilities." Also, "They learn a lot about themselves." Other benefits included learning how to communicate using sign language; learning how to develop relationships; and learning about career choices.

Questionnaire Designed for Highland Park High School Peer Tutors

1. What made you apply and interview to enroll in the peer tutor course?

"I read the course description, and it sounded interesting. My good friend's sister took the course a few years ago and liked it." " I needed an extra course and this sounded like fun. I'd never done anything like this before." "I like working with kids and helping them." "I wanted to learn more about and help those less fortunate." " I enjoy working with other people, and after working with the disabled kids at Bradfield last year, I really wanted to be able to do it this year again." " I heard about the course from my counselor and decided it sounded like an interesting and exciting course."

2. Would you recommend this course to your friends?

Everyone felt they would recommend this course. The reasons given were: "It's a fun and exciting way to meet new people; in a sense it gives you a reality check. It helps you realize what is important in life." "It's a very good experience. You learn to deal and play with different kinds of kids. You learn to appreciate being healthy instead of worrying about how you look, how pretty you are, etc." "I would recommend this to certain friends, but not all of them because some people do not have the patience or caring that others do." "Yes, because the course was a wonderful way to help and you learned a lot from it."

3. What types of responsibilities do you have in the peer tutoring program?

"One of the most important is to set a good example and to just be yourself." "I help kids feel good about themselves and help them overcome their disabilities." "I help them meet the goals they set." "Helping the kids go through their assignments. Also maintaining patience when they get off task or become frustrated." "I help the students with their work and try to be a person that they can look up to."

4. Give some examples of activities and instruction you have participated in with your disabled peer?

Activities included: tutoring in art, P. E., reading, and basic math skills such as counting money, adding and subtracting money without a calculator; talking and getting to know them better; eating lunch with them and keeping them company; being involved in an end of the year dance for the kids; going shopping, to movies, or to someone's house; helping them work on computers in the ACAT center and with social studies where the students were learning about their community and Texas.

5. What did you learn from your experiences in the peer tutoring program?

"I have learned that these kids aren't different than everyone else; they're just as special as you and me." " I learned they are people just like us who want to have a good time. All they need is guidance and some inspiration." "I learned how to be patient with the kids." " I learned that all these kids are really sweet and to have more patience with them." " I learned that every person has a purpose and is worth something. After growing so close to the kids at Bradfield I realized how much love they had inside them, and after that experience, I have not discriminated against others." "I learned that everyone is special in their own unique way."

6. Do you think your experiences in this course will influence your attitude about disabilities in your future community and in your future career?

All of the students felt this experience had influenced their attitude about disabilities and that for many of them this change would carry on into their future thinking and plans. For example: "It has helped me become more involved with the community. I will never see them as different or unfortunate anymore." "Definitely. At first I was a little scared of their disabilities and I wasn't sure how to act, but not now (since) I have spent time helping them." "Yes, because no matter what kind of disabilities a person has it does not affect the person they are." "For sure! I think it definitely opens your mind. I know last year I was almost scared when I first started with the kids, but then it eventually became my favorite part of the day. I felt like they really needed me." "I learned that (even though) a person has a disability they are still special." " I might want to do this for my career in the future."

7. Do you feel this course was beneficial to you?

Once again there was complete agreement. "It taught me to live every day to the fullest because I realize that these kids do. It taught me to respect everyone." "I've learned about helping other people. It's a good feeling to know you're helping them feel good about themselves." "It helps me learn how to work with different people." "It has given me a more open mind." " I think it was beneficial because, not only do you learn about others, but you learn about yourself. You also feel good about yourself for giving to others."

8. Do you feel this program contributes to the quality of life for students with disabilities?

"Yes, it gives the students with disabilities more of one-on-one atmosphere. This attention, I found, helps them learn material faster." "They feel accepted and are treated normal whereas in the outside world people don't know how to act." "Yes, because they feel like they're special given the attention." " I think this class gives these kids a great opportunity in life." " I think it does contribute to the quality of life for the students with disabilities because they can make friends throughout the whole school. It is also neat to receive help from a peer." "Yes, because it is a great program. It gives them a great chance to meet new people and to learn."

An exciting, additional outcome of Highland Park High School's peer tutor program is that the practice has expanded to include all populations at the school. "Students as interdependent self managers" practicing in peer study groups is a priority focus at Highland Park High School. If you would like to visit with Heidi Zeko about this program, you may leave a message on her voice mail at school. That number is (214) 712-4004.

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Last Revision: July 22, 2004