A true high school experience is available to all CHHS studentsSep 08, 2022 12:49PM ● By Jet Burnham
One of the most enthusiastic clubs participating in Copper Hills High School’s Homecoming Parade on Sept. 8 will be the Copper Hills Positively Affecting Lives club. Club members include students with various disabilities and their mainstream peers, many of whom are peer tutors. They will be dressed for this year’s theme, “European Tour,” to walk in the parade together.
The Homecoming Parade is one of the social parts of the high school experience that were often not accessible to students with disabilities before special education teacher Jacqueline Sheppick started the CHPALS club six years ago.
“I just really wanted my students to be able to feel like they got to experience high school like their peers,” she said. “PALS stands for positively affecting lives, and that's what these kids do. We meet at basketball games and football games. We provide them with the opportunity to experience high school like the rest of the school does, without their mom having to babysit.”
Melanie Hanson said if it were not for CHPALS, she would have had to bring her daughter to school events and sit with her, but only if she could make other arrangements for her younger children.
“She doesn't hang out a lot with friends just because she's not a typical child that communicates and socializes the same,” Hanson said. “Somebody always has to be with her, so it was nice to be able to have her somewhere where we could trust the people and feel comfortable having them with her. She just loved being with them, and hanging out with them, and she always was super happy when she'd come home.”
CHPALS is a popular club—some years there are up to 200 kids—but most activities have about 80 kids show up, 30 of which are Sheppick’s students.
Sheppick said CHPALS has been beneficial for all students. Peers model appropriate social skills for her students, and her students teach their peers how to appropriately and respectfully treat people with disabilities. All the students become comfortable with people who are different from them and learn to make new friends.
“I see these kids building actual relationships with people with disabilities, and it’s not a superficial friendship,” Sheppick said. “They are actually inviting my students to after school parties with them, so that my students get the opportunity to build real relationships that are lasting, which is what inclusion really is for—true friends, not just 7-3 friends.”
Avery Hiller made many friends while serving as CHPALS president last year.
“These kids deserve a regular high school experience just like anybody else,” Hiller said. “We're able to include them in a way that they can't include themselves. We can bring them to games, we can hold social gatherings where they can make friends and then it helps them feel more normal.” Hiller graduated in June and is studying at SUU to become a special education teacher.
This year’s CHPALS president, Karley Bates, also plans to become a special education teacher.
“I absolutely love special education/special needs kids,” she said. “They have the biggest light, and are the happiest people you’ll ever be around, no matter their circumstances.”
She is excited for this year’s club activities.
In addition to school and club activities, club members also participate in annual collaborative events such as the Special Education Prom (which CHHS hosted for the district last year) and Special Olympics (in which CHHS took 2nd place in state last year.)
Sheppick said inclusivity is part of CHHS’s school culture. Other school clubs invite the CHPALS to their activities and often ask Sheppick how they can help her students be more involved at the school.
This is a huge change from the culture six years ago, when she first came to CHHS and found that special education students weren’t even attending mainstream classes.
“There wasn't any inclusion or camaraderie or unity,” she said. “It was just those kids and then the rest of school.”
She said CHHS has become something special.
“People told me when I became a special ed teacher that inclusion is a dream,” she said. “Honestly, it's happening here at Copper Hills. The dream is a reality and it's amazing. Everyone knows them, everyone looks out for them, everyone cares about them, and they have so many friends that are there to support them. There’s just something special about Copper Hills and their inclusivity is amazing.”
Stacy Nay said CHPALS was a great opportunity for her neurodiverse son, Alex. During his senior year, he served as the co-president alongside the peer student president, helping with club activities. Nay said it was a leadership opportunity that he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
“This was something so unique, that fit him, and he was able to really excel in those skills that he normally wouldn't have,” she said.
She said when she first learned about the CHPALS club, she broke down and cried.
“Because this is an incredible opportunity for my son and his peers,” she said. “Having a group that can all go together, that as a parent, you can trust that they're going to be watched out for while they can still enjoy the things that these neurotypical mainstream children within the school are experiencing—you can't put a price on it. They're getting a normal high school experience along with their peers, which they wouldn't have if there wasn't this program.” λ