It’s nearing the end of third period in sixth grade teacher Tracey Pennington’s class at Daybreak Middle School, and the excitement in the room is palpable. The students are practically bouncing in their seats waiting for the bell to ring. As soon as it does, the classroom empties in a flash as the students quickly line up before heading on their way downstairs to take part in the school’s peer mentoring program.

Today, this group of mentors is helping prepare and make pancakes alongside their “buddies” in special education teacher Kristina Heikes’ class. Other days, the mentors might be helping their buddies with school work, creating arts and crafts, playing games, or just socializing and having fun getting to know more about each other.

This is the first year of Daybreak’s Peer Mentoring program, and Pennington says the early results have been a smashing success.

“The peer mentorship program has grown quickly and is already reaching out way past our initial expectations,” Pennington said. “Mindsets are changing, lives are being impacted, and better humans are developing thanks to this program.”

“Students with disabilities show a higher rate of development when they’re in a program with high expectations and strong peer models,” said Ellen Wiessner, Battle Ground Public Schools’ executive director of special services. “Daybreak Middle’s Peer Mentoring collaboration helps support such an environment.”

Special education teachers Kristina Heikes and Jeanie Vashaw said that Daybreak’s Peer Mentoring program stands out because of the personal connections made between students. “Most of my students only interact with peers at recess, lunch and during some elective classes, which can be overwhelming due to sensory overload,” said Heikes. “Having the peer mentors come down in a smaller group helps decrease that overwhelming feeling so my students can make those personal connections that they would otherwise miss out on.”

“We need to continue to think creatively about different ways to foster relationships between students,” said Vashaw. “Inclusion is important, but creating opportunities to engage within smaller group settings and allowing for all students to have a say in the types of activities they participate in is a vital next step.”

Tracey Pennington is now in her second year teaching at Daybreak Middle. She left the teaching profession for several years in 2011 after becoming a certified nursing assistant and soon started working with adults and kids with special needs through programs at the Firstenburg and Marshall community centers in Vancouver.

“To say that being immersed in the special needs population was life changing is a vast understatement,” Pennington said. “My eyes were opened, my ‘mama bear’ persona took root, and my experiences working with this population have helped me become a better person. I am determined to pass this passion on to my students.”

The inspiration for the program originated last school year when Pennington decided that one of the classroom “jobs” she’d assign to her students would be to visit the special education classroom for the last 15 minutes of one class period each day to hang out, play games, and lend a helping hand when needed. Students rotated classroom jobs each week, and everyone was expected to perform each job at some point during the school year.

“I expected there to be some hesitation and trepidation, but what happened was kids were bouncing out of their seats to go spend time with their buddies each day. If the student with that job for the week was absent, virtually every kid in my class would beg to take their place,” Pennington said.

At the end of last school year, Pennington was asked what she wanted to teach for enrichment for 2018-19. That’s when the light bulb came on. With approval from school administrators, Pennington approached special education teachers Kristina Heikes and Jeanie Vashaw with the idea of combining their fourth period classes and calling it Peer Mentoring. They enthusiastically signed on to the idea, and the program was born.

“I really enjoy just hanging out with our buddies, learning more about them and their interests and hobbies,” said sixth grade peer mentor Jacey Opdahl. “Being a peer mentor is helping me to be a better person. I’m a lot less judgmental now and am happy that I got to know some new people from my school.”

Sixth grader Kingston Gaither agrees. “Last year, I didn’t interact all that much with the students in the special education program. But being a mentor is really fun! It’s one of my favorite parts of each day.”

“It has always been my hope to help bring about real, tangible change and do my part in making the world a little bit kinder and more empathetic,” Pennington said. “Everyone deserves acceptance, love, and peer relationships. It’s critical for a person’s development and who they’ll be as adults, and I am so proud of all the students involved in Daybreak’s peer mentoring program.”

“My students want the same things as everyone,” said Heikes. “They may learn or communicate differently, but they still have the same needs and wants as any other student: friends, acceptance and a place to belong. This program fosters that for my students, and also teaches typical students acceptance of all people. Every school system should look for new ways to make that happen.”