Building friendships while breaking down barriers. This is the idea behind one of the newest and most innovative programs to hit local schools.
Keri Drish, a math teacher at Ross N. Robinson Middle School, and Christie Culbertson, a special education teacher at Dobyns-Bennett High School, joined forces in the fall of 2012 to organize and sponsor the Sparkle Squad, which currently consists of nine students from D-B’s and Robinson's Life Skills classes, 11 students from the BUDS (Buddies Understanding Different Students) program and the D-B Spirit Shakers Dance Team.
BUDS is a reverse inclusion program at Dobyns-Bennett, where seniors who have met certain requirements are able to come in and work with the students in the Life Skills class each day. They work with them on classroom assignments, their jobs around the school and also social skills. Each of the girls volunteers each week and attends the Sparkle Squad practices, as well as their performances.
Sparkle Squads are about connection, not perfection, and the connections these students build are what make this program so popular, successful and important. The squad practices for an hour once a week. They warm up, go over the chants (used to get the crowd involved in their performance) and then move into the dance routines. A familiar song is used in their routine to get the entire audience moving with them. It is a win/win situation for all involved as Culbertson uses the opportunity to incorporate life skills from the curriculum into the experience.
Maggie, a member of the Spirit Shakers and a student in the BUDS program said, “I got involved this past fall with the Sparkle Squad. I had seen them cheer at some games last year and thought it was a great idea. Mrs. Culbertson came to all the seniors in the dance team and asked if it was something we would like to do - and I jumped at the chance. At every practice, I feel like I have grown closer to them. The joy that they bring to this is awesome. I really hope this program stays around, and I look forward to watching the Sparkle Squad achieve more and more.”
Drish, a math teacher at Robinson, is quick to point out that Sparkle Squad is a group effort.
“While Christie and I get a lot of credit for coaching the team, the people who should be recognized are the high school students who give up their free time to support their peers and offer helping hands. It is so special to see the interaction between the Sparkle Squad members and the student volunteers and to witness the friendships forming over the course of the season. The squad wouldn’t be possible without the student volunteers.”
Destiny is another BUD who works with the Sparkle Squad.
“Each student has a little something different that will just make anyone’s day. Every Thursday I get excited to come to school and Sparkle Squad practice. I have worked with most of the students, but I mainly assist Zack. Each practice we have more and more fun! His giggle, all of his songs and his funny actions fill the practice and keep us busy the whole time. Our first performance, I had no clue what would happen, or even if Zack would even want to perform, but once we went out on the field, Zack’s face lit up! He was grinning from ear-to-ear! He cheered and danced like never before, and just knowing that I can be there to interact and be a part of his happiness thrills me. Everyone talks about how the BUDS and assistants impact the lives of the students, but we receive much more than we give.”
Macy, who hopes to be a teacher herself someday, looks forward to the practices.
“They are the highlight of my week. The squad members are always smiling and happy, they make me smile, too - you can’t help but be in a good mood around them!”
She is very proud of the squad and her involvement with it and loves to spread the word to others.
“The more time we get to spend with the squad, the closer we become as friends. We are much more alike than different.”
Hannah agrees. “I think the main reason the Sparkle Squad has so much support at school and out in the community is because it does such a good job of downplaying the differences between people - it’s a very positive way to change perceptions.”
Lauren adds that, in addition to getting to know the members of the squad, she is impressed with how genuinely happy they always seem to be.
“They are great role models for us because they appreciate everything - even the smallest things in life.”
In addition to the BUDS and Spirit Shakers, the very important “supporting cast” includes the principals at both schools, the director of special education for Kingsport City Schools, a teacher who embroiders the uniforms, and additional teachers who attend practices and performances and lend assistance. And, of course, there are the students and members of the community, whose cheers, applause and enthusiastic support at the athletic events provide support and encouragement to the Sparkle Squad members.
“We are fortunate at D-B that the barriers you often see constructed between students who are typically developing and those with disabilities have somewhat dissolved over the years with our inclusive programs,” says Culbertson. “The BUDS program, along with the Sparkle Squad, are two successful examples of that.”
“Not only do the Sparkles cheer on their school, but they also give the entire student body and community a reason to cheer on the fact that we are all similar in so many ways.”