Patrick Park squeezed his hands tight around his bat, kept his eyes on the T-ball tee in front of him and took a giant swing.

When the ball bounced past second base, the 13-year-old Midway Middle School student smiled and took off like a shot to round the bases on his way to home plate. The home runs are his favorite part and they’re even better when he shares them with the new friends he eats with this year, he said.

“I’m buying my lunch today,” Park said. “I sit by Alice, Savannah. All of them. All the girls. (I’ve made) probably four new friends, or 16.”

But until a new program launched this school year, the physical education class for Park and other special-needs students typically consisted of walking around the school’s track or in the gym, said Herb Cox, Midway Middle School’s principal.

Called Partners P.E., the school is pairing about 50 general-education students with special-education students to teach them about inclusion, compassion and empathy by allowing general-ed students to host tailored physical games and activities during class time. And the program is going over better than anticipated, Cox said.

He’s been with Midway Independent School District for six years, and launched the program in two other districts. But the program was only at the high school level, he said. When Cox’s staff started looking to diversify inclusion options last year, he knew he had the program in his back pocket.

With P.E. ending shortly before lunch, Cox said he knew the program was the perfect chance to give them more options for exercise and inclusion. He just wished he would’ve done it sooner, he said.

“Seventh- and eighth-graders are different beasts. They’re immature; they’re squirrely as all get-out. That’s why I’m here, I’m a little squirrely myself. These are my kids,” Cox said. “The maturity level, the consequences and the liability scared me. Some of (the special-ed students) tip over. They’ll have a trigger and they’ll go off and some of them might even be physically aggressive. There are a lot of emotions in middle school, and it scared me for both sets of kids to be in a position where they could get hurt. I hesitated.

“Shame on me, I shouldn’t have.”

Students spent the first two weeks in the library, researching the different challenges their partners might face before they were allowed teach activities to special-education students, Cox said.

He tried to make sure the general-ed students understood some special-needs students might be sensitive to certain noises or certain boundaries, but the students couldn’t wait any longer to be with their partners, he said.

“Our goal was to either increase the room there, where their partners would come sit with them, or they would be invited to sit with their partners at lunch eventually,” Cox said. “That happened within the first week of school, and it blew our minds.”

Angie Cummings, a special-education assistant who has a special-needs son who recently graduated from Midway ISD, has seen the program’s quick impact firsthand. She and about seven or eight other educators help monitor the class on a regular basis, when most usually have the time for lunch or a conference period, Cox said.

“They interact more, and some of (the special-needs students) don’t even talk. But when they’re around regular kids, they become just like regular kids. They participate more, and it makes them want to do it and want to fit in. It gives them more self-esteem,” Cummings said. “My son loves being around kids and he loves to be praised. He likes to be around people who are happy and showing him attention one-on-one, and the special needs students here today are getting that attention. Every one of them.”

The special-needs students won’t have the same partner all year long. General-ed students will rotate every few weeks to meet someone new.

For seventh-grader Grace Collins, helping others comes naturally, but Partners P.E. takes her desire to make a positive impact to new level, she said. Encouragement and patience is key, she said.

“Last year, one of the special-needs students that is actually in this class was in my regular-ed P.E. class, and I was a little interested and was like, ‘Why not?’” Collins said. “Partners P.E. has taught me to have a lot more empathy … It’s extremely important for them to have social interaction and there are a lot of people here who want to be their friends.”

Cox said there’s no doubt in his mind he’ll continue the program next year, too.

“We’ll never go back,” Cox said.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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