McNary classes unite students of different needs

Victor Vazquez (from left), Alyssa Christensen, Mia Naylor and Kevin Chen at a unified PE class.

Inclusion is not just a concept at McNary High School, it is a reality for students with special needs in various Unified classes.

Unified  classes  give  educators,  students,  administrators and coaches the power to create a more inclusive world and help end the stigma around intellectual disabilities.

McNary offers unified classes in physical education, business, art and theater.

Kelly Parsell, a special education teacher, oversees the Unified Physical Education class. She said that PE was the first of a unified piece. “And then people thought,

‘Why not spread it out?’” she said. She added there is hope of unified cooking, construction and graphic design classes. “How ever you can dream it up, you can unify it,” Parsell said.

Unified is a part of Special Olympics, which supports all of the McNary programs.

Unified pairs students with disabilities and students without disabilities and they work together in the classes. Students with disabilities are referred by their teachers, the people who know them and know that they would enjoy unified and benefit from it.

“The  partners without disabilities might be referred to by teachers who know them. Or, they may be interested, hear about it and seek it out. And, you know, we get to know them and see if they would be a good fit,” Parsell said. 

“They are eager. We have quite the waiting list.”

On the day Keizertimes visited, McNary students and their partners were getting ready for a spirited game of kickball in the gymnasium.

The unified PE class is overseen by Parsell and basketball coach Michael McShane. They are assisted by other staff members including instructional assistants.

“We have quite the crew to get this running the way that we do here at McNary,” Parsell said, adding that a strong general education teacher with a passion and a special education teacher with the kind of knowledge of the population to support is key to the PE class success. 

Alyssa Christensen, a sophomore, and Mia Naylor, a senior, are partners with the athletes.

What Christensen gets out of the program is the bonds forged by the program.

“It’s really nice to see them break out of their shell when they get to meet new people,” she said.

Naylor echoed the sentiment. “It’s really fun to see how happy the kids are when we play the games. Because it’s something they don’t get to do as often as other people, so I like to see them happy to do it.”

Christensen and Naylor partner with Kevin Chen, a freshman, whose favorite sport is basketball. They also partner with Victor Vazquez, who has a playful and irreverent personality, who would rather play video games than sports.

Ali Martinez, a senior and member of the girls wrestling team, is a unified partner as well. For her, the best part of the unified PE class is having the connections not only in class but outside of class, in the hallways.

“I feel like I’m a part of every part of our school, not just a student athlete. I’m a unified student athlete,” said Martinez. “It’s a bigger community that I’m part of; it feels nicer to be more welcome here.”

Martinez thinks the unified classes help to alleviate bullying on campus.

“With my friends, they wouldn’t know anything about kids with special needs,” she explained. “They see me being friendly with them and they may think, “They’re just like us. They’re here to go to school and have a good time. I can be friends with them, too.’ A lot of people who aren’t in the unified classes are friends with a lot of them because of us partners. 

“We show the rest of the school it’s okay to be get out of your comfort zone and be friends with anyone.”

One of Martinez’s athletes, Avery Deiss, enjoys the activities and is also in the unified art and business classes.

McNary now offers more unified classes. Last year PE was the only class. Now there are unified classes in business, art and theater.

“We’re hoping to grow those sections so that there’s more opportunities because they are quite popular amongst the kids,” said Parsell. “They’re a fun class where you get to learn in a different way and meet different friends and experience a different population of people that have been around you your whole life. It’s pretty special.”

Mark Kohley oversees the unified art class, which began last September. 

He said that all the students improve their academic and social skills while participating in exercises that allow them to practice those skills.

“The primary focus in unified art is cooperative group work emphasizing the elements and principles of art,” Kohley said.

Class members Gavin Edwards and Danica Ryther won first place awards in the unified art category at the Keizer Art Association’s McNary Student Art Show in February.

There are currently 44 students working in class as artists and partners. 

This is also the first year for unified theater classes.

Theater teacher Tom Cavanaugh said unified theater is primarily a performance class. “We would like to add technical elements in future years.

“Students have the chance to perform three times a year in front of their peers.”

Currently, the unified theater class is in rehearsals for an abbreviated Alice in Wonderland set to perform in April.

Aspects of theater taught in the class are basics such as stage blocking and character voices. Students are making masks and other costume pieces as well as operating lights and sound for their upcoming show.

As more unified classes are added in the future, students with special needs have choices now to help them feel they are included in school culture.

Kelly Parsell and Michael McShane oversee the unified PE class.
Unified Art show winner Gavin Edwards with his piece “Dino”
Unified Arts winner Danica Ryther

Contact Publisher Lyndon Zaitz:
[email protected] or 503-390-1051

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