New class to connect students through performance art

In order to build relationships between students with disabilities and able-bodied peers through performance art, ETHS is introducing Wildkit Ensemble as a new class for next year.

“It’s something that the Fine Arts department has kind of kicked around for a long time, but as you can imagine, it requires a lot of a lot of pieces to be in the right place in order for it to be done well,” Fine Arts Director Nicholas Gehl said.

The Fine Arts and Special Education departments teamed up throughout this past year to create the class.

“From the special education perspective… our goal is to provide equal opportunities for students with special education needs, not some sort of parallel production,” Special Education Dept. Chair Lesley Roberts said.

Wildkit Ensemble will focus on building connections through performance art such as music, theater and dance. Class members will also prepare for a final performance.

“But the real focus will be on the relationships that they build while they’re creating that performance,” Roberts explained.

Any ETHS student is eligible to register for Wildkit Ensemble. In order to provide students with the most flexibility in their schedules, students have the option to take the class for the whole year or a semester. Wildkit Ensemble provides a fine arts credit.

“I definitely recommend that all students [get involved with students with disabilities].That’s really beneficial not just for the students with disabilities but also for other students to learn and grow as people,” Wildkit Buddies peer leader and PE Adaptive/Interactive assistant junior Gillian Rosenberg said.

ETHS staff hopes students take away lessons in tolerance, patience and cooperation that will stay with them meaningfully.

I think coming from the [general education] world, one of the benefits to a student experiencing this class is the increase in disability awareness,” Gehl said.

As ETHS staff were working to create Wildkit Ensemble, they looked to other programs for reference such as The Penguin Project’s production of Aladdin and New Trier’s High Five Choir.

Members of the ETHS Fine Arts department attended High Five Choir’s performances and visited them while they were in class practicing to develop a greater understanding of the program.

“As we’re looking at other models what we really want to do is create our own way of doing things,” Roberts explained.

Roberts previously worked at Barrington High School, which offers a class called A Place For Us, connecting students with disabilities to other students with a 1:1 ratio.

“Relationships were built between the students… those relationships actually expanded out beyond the classroom which was what we were trying to do,” Roberts said.

Certain PE classes and Wildkit Buddies already provide opportunities for ETHS students to form connections with students with disabilities.

This year and in past years, juniors and seniors were eligible to become Physical Education Adapted/Interactive Assistants, who collaborate with students with disabilities in Adaptive, Developmental Learning Program (DLP) or DLP Dance FUNdamentals gym classes.

These classes focus more heavily on team building activities. The classes regularly perform in the ETHS Dance winter and spring showcases. Next year, only students who have successfully completed Junior Leadership will be eligible to become a PE Adapted/Interactive Assistant.

“I really enjoy working with students with disabilities, and I think that it’s a way to get something out of a gym class,” Rosenberg said. “It’s rewarding to see the progress students make. There’s one kid who’s a little bit shy, but it’s really amazing to see him open up and talk to us.”

Wildkit Buddies, an ETHS club originally based on the international program Best Buddies, aims to build and normalize friendships between students with special needs and general education students. They host seasonal parties, large group events once a month, and smaller “family” meetings three times per month to form these relationships.

“Seeing the friendships being made and everyone truly hanging out and having fun and getting to know each other, that’s the best part because the goal is to make more friendships… you can see the impact,” Wildkit Buddies co-president Elena Basso explained.

Wildkit Buddies engages in art activities such as making cards for hospitalized kids and doing themed coloring sheets at parties. Dancing is also a regular highlight at events.

Gehl and Roberts raised awareness for the new performance art class by sending an informational email to the entire student body and specifically advertising to clubs such as Wildkit Buddies.

“I know a lot of people don’t even know the students with special needs… this class will also help to broaden the friendships and communities to not just Wildkit Buddies and the PE classes… [but to] more of the school, so I think that’s really great,” Basso said.

“In a way [Wildkit Ensemble is] life-changing. I hope the students with special needs, will forever remember this inclusive environment where they formed relationships with students from across the building,” Gehl explained. “For general education students, I hope they bring that disability awareness, knowledge, understanding and empathy with them. Advocating doesn’t have to end when you graduate.”