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AGAWAM — Many high schools have created inclusive or unified sports programs that pair special education students with their general education peers. Agawam High School, however, is one of the few in the area that has gone beyond sports by adding two unified academic classes.

Following a successful pilot program during the 2022-23 school year, the school made a unified arts and music class a regular part of the high school’s course of studies for 2023-24.

“Our school has always been a full inclusion model where students with special needs are included in our classes,” said Amber Waters, the core curriculum facilitator for the visual arts department.

But the unified arts and music classes, which were suggested by a special education teacher, are completely different, by giving special education students an access point to academic studies. Both classes match students from the high school’s special education Aspire classes and Strive program with general education students. Both classes have a total of about 20 students enrolled.

“With our unified arts class, special education students are now a true part of our AHS community, while adults are becoming more like observers, in what is pretty much a student-driven experience. Our unified class is a real team effort as regular and special education students work alongside each other to create a variety of two-dimensional and three-dimensional artwork,” said Waters.

William Hueglin, the core curriculum facilitator for the performing arts department, said every student is entitled to a music education, “no matter their learning needs or style.” He said the unified music education class benefits students with exceptional learning needs through increased confidence, motor skills, creativity, language development, memory, communication skills and serves as a stress relief.

Students in the music class regularly respond to music of varying styles, tempos (speeds), and dynamics (loudness and softness). Performing movements that correspond to the music helps students work on their motor skills and make physical associations with sounds.

“When paired with calming, gentle music, it can provide a great stress relief for them,” said Hueglin.

The arts class benefits “typical” students as much as special needs students, said Waters. “It provides everyone the opportunity to experience inclusion and empathy while working together. They gain a broader scope of real-world life and experience while being exposed to the arts,” she said.

Senior Mia McGregor said the unified arts class is the highlight of her day.

“It makes me happy to work with my special education peers,” she said. “I know I’m making a difference in their lives as well as in my own — it really has exceeded my expectations.”

McGregor said not only has she made new friends while working with her special education peers, but she also knows the class helps them.

“One great benefit is socializing with regular students. It improves their real-world communication skills and their fine motor skills.”

Her classmate, Deniel Castellano Cruz, said a teacher recommended he take the unified arts class.

“She said it would be a great experience. At first, I was hesitant. But I went into it with an open mind — and I don’t regret it. I recommend it for any student.”

He said the class benefits both special education and regular education students by helping breakdown some negative stereotypes of students with disabilities.

Kilee Barna, who is in the unified music class, said she likes the idea of helping students learn about live music.

“The class gives every student a chance to learn about each instrument and to express themselves through music,” said the sophomore. “It also shows that special needs students are very talented and love music in different ways — just like other students.” 

Waters said the unified arts and music classes are an “amazingly magical” opportunity and outlet for all students: “Creative experiences help us view problems from a different perspective and assist us in all our numerous approaches to life.”

Making positive connections with other creative people in the art studio can “do wonderful things” for a student’s self-esteem, said Waters.

“Our entire department prides itself on the positive and creative connections we make alongside our students,” she said.

Waters said exposing all students to new experiences and challenges, such as in an arts program, helps them grow and learn: “Overall, I think all the students have fun and enjoy the class.”

Hueglin said his unified class covers a variety of musical concepts in age and skill appropriate ways. This includes rhythm reading, call and response, beat and pulse, body percussion, improvisation and melodic and harmonic performance.

“Just like with general education peers, music benefits are countless. Brain studies continually learn about new ways music impacts the brain and our thinking,” he said.

Every special education student coming to the unified classes have unique learning needs, which both teachers try to keep in mind when planning class activities. Some students use a communication device, others have a sensitivity to loud sounds and some have limited mobility.

“I don’t look at any of these circumstances as challenges, but rather as opportunities to be creative and help students access and experience music in the manner that is best for them. Ultimately, my job is to meet the students where they are and help them to grow,” said Hueglin.

mlydick@thereminder.com | + posts