High school lunchtime can be an intimidating atmosphere, filled with uncertain social norms and expectations, depending on your grade level and social status. However, a step into the lunch hour at South Christian High School (Grand Rapids, MI) is bustling with students of diverse grade levels, abilities, and backgrounds eating, laughing, and playing games together as part of the school’s Connections Lunch Partners program.
Lunch Partners, which began fifteen years ago, is just one way that South Christian seeks to encourage students to build relationships with students across ages, cultures, special needs, and social groups through their larger Connections program. By creating opportunities for purposeful interactions, Connections’ mission is to help students see one another through God’s eyes.
South Christian High School started Connections nearly twenty years ago when they began including students with more significant needs in their general education classrooms. They realized students with disabilities were getting the support they needed academically, but the school needed to do more to connect students socially.
“We started with a small group the first few years; I would personally ask students to come alongside one of our students with a disability to offer tutoring or eat with them at lunch, which grew into genuine friendships over time. That first year, we based it on the Circle of Friends model, but tweaked pieces of it to fit high school and it grew from there,” shared Ellie Van Keulen, Inclusion Specialist at South Christian for twenty-one years.
“I appreciated the encouragement from CLC Network to keep going, even when student participation was low. God has truly blessed our efforts. The placement of my classroom is a testament to that – I moved from the back corner of a hallway to the very heart of the school,” remembers Van Keulen.
Currently, more than one-third of the South Christian High 660-person student body participates in Connections in some capacity through peer tutors, special events, Connections Council, themed chapels, or Diversability Week. As Van Keulen shares, “The only qualities we require are a willingness to reach across boundaries, a willingness to serve, an ability to meet weekly, and a sensitivity to the needs of others. If a student has the right attitude, we can coach them on the rest.”
Often, students are eager to participate because they have heard it is a fun way to get involved at school.
“Participating in Connections is a great opportunity to get to know people. It is a free environment where you can be yourself – it’s very welcoming,” shared Cody, a senior.
“I got involved because I thought it was a good way to meet new people and get connected,” commented Sam, a senior Connection Council member who has been a Lunch Partner since ninth grade.
Impacting Students’ Hearts and Lives
Vocationally, Connections is preparing students for future careers in special education. Ashtyn, a senior, credits Connections for helping her realize she wanted to specialize in cognitive impairments as part of her future special education degree. Madeline, a senior who wants to become a paraprofessional after she graduates shared, “Peer tutoring helped me become more prepared [for this job] – I’ve learned patience and joy.”
Connections has created competent, compassionate leaders, genuine friends, and better students, not to mention a generation of Christ-followers who daily interact with friends of diverse abilities and backgrounds – something that’s become commonplace at this inclusive Christian school.
“Inclusion has come into every part of our students’ lives – we’ve seen graduates [without disabilities] take what they’ve learned here and bless their communities in so many other ways,” shared Van Keulen.
George Guichelaar, principal at South Christian High for more than twenty years stated,
“What’s absolutely blown us away is how [inclusion] has transformed our school. We initially focused on how it would change students that were receiving services, but we should have focused on how it would impact everyone else.”
Sarah, a senior at South Christian reflects on how she’s grown through her involvement with Connections: “When people think about programs like Connections or inclusive education, they think the helpers are only benefiting the student. But when you start working with students who have Down syndrome or autism spectrum disorder or any kind of disability really, you get so much out of it at the same time. It’s not just a one way benefit.”
“Connections is a gift that keeps on giving,” stated Kevin, a senior Council member who has been a Lunch Partner since entering high school, “You don’t realize how much you’re impacted by it until you step back and realize what a great experience it’s been. I’ve learned that everyone is different and has obstacles to overcome. Helping them through that is a great experience.”
Sarah continues, “When I started doing peer tutoring, Lunch Partners and working on the Connections Banquet, I was a little bit judgmental and snobby. When I started teaching [students with disabilities] life skills and how to live independently, they taught me so much about myself. I was teaching them, and at the same time they were teaching me how to love unconditionally, and not care what your differences are…”
Like many of her peers, Lindsey, a junior, shared that she has learned pure joy from working with persons with disabilities, “It’s given me a different perspective on life. I’ve learned how to help others even when I don’t feel like it.”
“You learn to respect everyone and treat them like you’d treat your friends,” commented Kerri, a senior Council member: a statement that affirms she is learning and practicing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22 firsthand.
An Encouragement for Schools
From listening to students and staff alike, it is apparent that Connections has transformed the community at South Christian High School. A transformation they adamantly encourage other Christian schools to pursue:
“Just do it. Start somewhere! Get permission from your administration, and then begin with a small group of students. We’ve learned that lunch is the best time for high school students to connect with one another. After we began Lunch Partners, Connections grew exponentially.”
Van Keulen continued, “The Council (made up of juniors and seniors) has been critical to the success of Connections. They do the brainstorming and organizing for Connections events, hold each other accountable as Lunch Partner leaders, and plan a yearly chapel. Even within the Council, friendships have developed that would not have happened otherwise.”
“Each spring as our senior leaders graduate, I pray for the right students to be part of the Council the next year. And every year without fail, God always raises up the amazing student leaders that we need!” shared Van Keulen, indicating a deep reliance on faith that has been crucial to the school’s twenty-year journey with inclusive education–a journey that clearly God has blessed.
“Social Inclusion for All” by Katie Barkley was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Christian Home & School, a publication of Christian Schools International.
Katie Barkley is the marketing communications manager at CLC Network.