NOTE: Each week throughout the school year, we will visit a school across Eastern Carver County Schools. Some weeks the plan may be to stop in multiple classrooms by grade, or by subject. Other weeks it may highlight a certain specialist group. The purpose is to give families and our community a glimpse into the every-day learning environment happening in our buildings. A chance to spotlight the incredible work our teachers and staff do on a daily basis for our students, and to showcase the incredible work our students produce as well. So, keep your Eye on ECCS!
Think of Miley Cyrus what you’d like, but her 2009 track “Party in the U.S.A.” is one of those tunes that gets everybody on their feet dancing no matter your age. So when the opening notes burst out of the portable speaker inside the Chaska Middle School West gymnasium Sept. 13, the energy level kicked up a notch or 10.
Students and staff put their hands up. They nodded their heads like, yeah. They were moving their hips like, yeah. It was a party in Mr. Tony Porthan’s Unified Personal Wellness class, a blend of Center-based and general education students where everyone fits in.
This is Porthan’s third year teaching the unified class; the fourth year overall at West. Its overall theme is “be inclusive, be respectful, be kind,” to one another, he said.
“It fills my bucket everyday,” he said. "This is the most impactful thing I've been a part of in my 31 years of teaching.”
Students are selected to participate in the class each year. Some have had siblings in the class in prior years.
“My sister really liked it and she told me how it would always make her day. She told me I should do it, and I’m really glad she did. It’s the best part of my day,” seventh grader Macy Hentges said.
“Everybody brings a smile to your face. They are happy, and that makes me so happy to be a part of this class with them,” eighth grader Kendall Hron said.
The class is just in its second week together, but already relationships are building. Many of the students quickly find each other for the body moving portion of the class – walking laps and dance party – but after a group stretch, students spread out to activities in different parts of the gym. Today’s options are bowling, pillow hockey, and basketball.
West principal Dr. Alicia Fischer, now in her second year at the school, is proud of the inclusivity between the Center-based programs and general education students. She sees it in the hallways each day. She sees how relationships are being formed by a simple hello and acknowledgement of using each other’s name.
Porthan pulls together the general education students at the end of the class after their friends have left the gymnasium. He asks them how the day went.
“It’s week two. Knowing how to connect with each one, it’s like finding the right key. It takes some time, but when you find the right key, the door opens to so many possibilities. I’m proud of you. You’re all doing great,” he said.
Unified programming exists elsewhere in the building. Kelly Seglem’s advisory is among a handful that shares time with Center-based students for one of their two class times each week. A sixth-grade advisory was added for the first time this school year.
Seglem’s students join Jon Mollien’s class to fingerprint their thumbs inside a Y O U for a You Belong Here poster for the room. Seventh grader Charlie Sellmeyer is among the first students in the room. He walks around to say hi to all of the students. One friend hears the hello and immediately rises to his feet to join the group.
The students come together on the rug to share some of their favorite things, including the flavor of their favorite ice cream. Students are chosen to be a part of unified advisories. Some through teacher recommendations, others sign-up.
Sellmeyer shares to the group that his brother, Teddy, is a West student in the Center-based program. “Teddy is my favorite person in the world. I love him,” Sellmeyer said.
Sellmeyer and classmate Charlie Knaeble have a previous connection to two of the students, Colton and Joseph, from Eric Songer’s unified band class. That is apparent as the four boys immediately are drawn together in the circle.
“We’re establishing that everyone is welcome, everyone is part of this school. When we walk down the hall, we say hi to one another. We may all have different abilities, but we can all be friends,” Seglem said. Her shirt on this day reads “Choose kindness, acceptance, inclusion.”
“Middle school is a time where students become more independent, they begin to discover who they are,” Fischer said.
That is why Porthan shares a simple message with all students. Pinching his thumb and index finger close together, he tells them, “let’s be this much better today.”