At the core of who we are, we all crave connection and belonging. From early in development, children seek to interact and form long-lasting bonds with family, peers and others around them and that desire continues throughout life. When students feel accepted, respected and included in school, it can have a powerful impact on motivation and achievement.
If you want to see an example of a school that’s doing it well, look no further than Cityside Middle School in Zeeland where wonderful things are happening through the zLinks program.
zLinks is a peer-to-peer support program that connects general education students, called “Links”, with special education students to promote social inclusion through sports, art and other mentor relationships. The program began in 2018 as Drop Everything And Read (DEAR), where special education students read with their Links each week for 30 minutes. When Special Education Teacher Amy Sluiter saw the positive connections being made she knew there was room for growth with the program and expanded it to include Physical Education and Art.
“Adding Physical Education and Art to the zLinks program allows students to work together daily creating even deeper relationships,” Amy says. “Students opt-out of their PE and Art class and the projects and games they would do there to be part of the zLinks program. It’s so special to see.”
“The connections and lessons learned in the program are evident outside the classroom and even outside the school building,” Amy says.
Amy says she sees special education students and their Links sitting together at lunch and extracurricular activities such as football games. Other teachers have witnessed zLinks students acting as advocates for their special education peers.
Cityside Middle School Art Teacher Jessica Kiwiet says this first year of incorporating zLinks into Art class has been a great experience.
“After a few projects that could have gone better, the zLinks students started coming in and choosing art projects the entire class has enjoyed,” Jessica says. “We rotate groups weekly so everyone can understand why the projects have adaptations or why things are done a certain way.”
zLinks seventh-grade student Rayleigh Jones says, “Through the zLinks program, I’ve learned more about including others and making others feel welcomed. I’ve even been nicer to my little brother!”
The zLinks program is open to all Cityside Middle School students who complete an application that includes personal reflection essay questions and teacher recommendations. Seventh and eighth-grade students are eligible to apply for the additional Art and Physical Education offerings. Those interested can also participate in zLinks through Zeeland High School.
“Through recognizing our differences, the zLinks program can make sure everyone is celebrated and included,” Amy says. “I’m so proud of our zLinks teachers and students who work so diligently to make this great program a success.”
Ottawa Area Schools’ Doing More. Together. collaborative is an innovative education partnership between faith-based schools, public schools, and public school academies throughout the Ottawa region that showcases the high-quality education offerings in local communities. The partnership’s website –doingmoretogether.org– features a wide array of success stories from participating schools. We are proud to partner with over 40 business and community partners including Champion Partner Muskegon Community College along with Engineering Supply and Imaging, GMB Architecture + Engineering, Grand Rapids Community College and MiSTEM Network Greater West Michigan Region.
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For more information, contact Michelle Ready, OAISD Director of Communications and Marketing at firstname.lastname@example.org or 616-738-8940, ext. 4093.
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