A couple of years ago, Cindy Bierman noticed a lack of interaction between her students in the resource room at Mitchell High School and the general student population.
Bierman taught some of the higher-needs students in the district, and she began to brainstorm a way to bring her students together with other students. It started by scheduling some time for students to come to the resource room and spending time with her students, and then it began to morph into something more.
Soon enough her resource room class began to host sessions where students from all over the school would play board games during the district Student Responsibility Block, an allotment of time that in an earlier generation may have called homeroom period.
The work recently earned her and the Mitchell School District the Little Red Schoolhouse Award from the School Administrators of South Dakota. The award is presented annually to a school district that is selected for implementing the most significant, innovative and successful education program or project, according to the organization website.
“I noticed the (the resource room students) didn’t interact with others. They would go to lunch and sit together, but otherwise they’re with me all day,” said Bierman, who has taught special education at Mitchell High School for 12 years. “I teach five subjects, and the only time somebody else was with them was for art or physical education classes.”
While she loved providing lessons and teaching skills to her students, she knew they would benefit from interacting with more people, especially students their own age, during the school day.
“I wanted them to have friends,” Bierman said. “I wanted the other kids to see they don’t bite or have cooties. None of that stuff or the stigma of being a special needs kid and I wanted them to be included. So we came up with the idea of Game Day.”
Aided by a KIDS Grant of $500, she was able to bring in the extra funds to purchase board games and snacks for the participants. After a trip to Walmart, the effort to bridge the gap between schoolmates at Mitchell High School was underway.
“One of the high school students and I went and bought these games and we came up with a schedule for SRB. On Gold Fridays, we would have a game day and invite students clubs or athletic teams to come in and play games,” Bierman said.
And soon enough, groups of students from the school were showing up on Gold Fridays, ready for a few rounds of Scrabble, Life or Uno with her special needs students. It didn’t take long before she realized the program was having a positive effect on both her students and the students who came in to volunteer.
The benefits of the social reaction for her students is vitally important to their development, she said.
“It makes them feel more a part of the school. Now they get invited to places or somebody will sit with them at lunch or a pep rally,” Bierman said.
Bierman, a native of Big Stone City who graduated from Milbank High School, has high praise for the students and teachers that have supported the program, and there are many of them. She has invited new transfer students into the district to take part as a way to make friends of their own in a new school. She rarely has trouble finding a group of kids to come in on those Gold Fridays for a round of board games and fun. And when they do show up, they organize the games, prepare the popcorn, and lead the way for their fellow Kernels.
“I have teachers at the school that tell me if you don’t have anyone to come in, let us know,” Bierman said. “But the general education kids come in and set it up and provide the popcorn and run it.”
The link to social interaction the general education students help provide is invaluable to the education and growth of her resource room students, Bierman said. Much of the learning experience in elementary and high school is learning how to interact socially with others, and special education students are too often left behind in that process.
And it opens the eyes of the volunteer students, as well. She praised students like Bridget Thill and Caitlyn Weins, who planned the Game Day activities for two years before they graduated. They are both now studying elementary education at Dakota State University and Dakota Wesleyan University, respectively.
While she has seen the general good nature of the students at Mitchell High School, she has also found more than one student who has looked at working with special needs students as a career after the experience they had with the Game Day program.
“One student said that she really liked working with so and so, who has Level 3 autism, and what does she need to do to teach him how to get dressed? I told her that’s an occupational therapist. She’s in ninth grade,” Bierman said. “Some are becoming interested in becoming teachers or working at LifeQuest.”
The program has reaped benefits for students of all stripes at Mitchell High School, and it’s one she hopes will continue into the future. Bierman is moving to a new program for students ages 18 to 21 in the Mitchell School District with the upcoming school year, and teacher Gina Bialas will be taking over for her.
Bierman is not entirely sure what the future holds for the Game Day program, but she knows it only takes a little determination, a little luck with grant writing and a general education student body willing to support their fellow students in the special education program. She knows all three things are possible because she’s experienced it, bringing joy to everyone involved, along with popcorn and board games.
“I think the Game Day program is one of the best things that’s happened at the high school between special education and general education students,” Bierman said. “My kids look forward to it every Gold Friday and I’m glad that Gina Bialas is taking over.”