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Salem-Keizer summer program promotes connection between students with special needs and peers

The summer program began in 2021, with about 100 students total who participated This year more than 300 students are participating.

SALEM, Ore. — Young adults participating in a local summer program for students with special needs say it's making a big difference in their lives. Salem-Keizer Public Schools’ Unified Summer Program is fostering connection and friendships between students who have disabilities and general education students.

On Wednesday morning, on the field at McKay High School in Northeast Salem, a lot of activity was underway — from games of what organizers called “noodle tag” to soccer. In the school gym, students participated in volleyball, basketball and other games.

It’s all part of the Unified Summer Program, which pairs students who have special needs with their general education peers.

The summer program began in 2021, with about 100 students who participated at the high school level. This year, the program expanded to serve students at the middle and elementary school levels as well. The number of total students participating tripled to more than 300.

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Kelly Parsell is a special education teacher and also a staff member for the summer program. She has been involved since it started last summer.

“For once, our community has something that's really created for these students and keeping in mind their abilities and things they enjoy,” said Parsell. “Which is huge because I don't know of any other summer programs that I could offer my students.”

While students with disabilities are welcome to join other summer opportunities in the district, Parsell said the Unified Summer Program in particular is making a huge difference

“It's the most authentic friendships I've seen built,” Parsell said. “These kids have never felt this kind of friendship and I would argue to say a lot of the partners that we bring on haven't felt this kind of connection with students as well. It's really special.”

19-year old Jackson Campbell graduated last year but is back helping out and getting work experience as a student worker. He is being paid through a grant and is involved in the Community Transition program at the district, which means he’ll be getting additional support and opportunities through the district until he’s 21. Campbell said the Unified program has made a big difference in his life.

“It makes a huge difference because normal — I’m not gonna say normal people. I'm just gonna say people without special needs, would just at first, view people with special needs as like not that important to society. But here's the truth, they are just as equally important,” said Campbell.

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Javi Martinez will be a senior next year and is a student with special needs. Martinez said he enjoys participating in the summer program and likes hanging out with his peers.

Connecting with other people and forming friendships is at the heart if the Unified Summer Program. Students this year not only had a chance to connect through sports and games, but also art classes, which were a new addition this summer.

“I hope we continue to dream big,” said Parsell, adding that it’s important to find ways to bring the community together as a whole and connect them.

Officials with Salem-Keizer Public Schools said the goal is to continue expanding opportunities for students with special needs to interact with their general education peers.

The Unified Summer Program is an offshoot of the Unified program that’s offered during the regular school year. The Unified program first started at South Salem High School in 2018 and paired up students with disabilities with general education students in classes like physical education, art, theater, or culinary skills. Now, the program is in all the district’s high schools and nine of 11 middle schools.

The Unified program will be rolling out at the elementary level this upcoming school year.

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