MINOCQUA - You might think of special education in schools as a group isolated from the rest of the student body.|
But in Minocqua, thanks to a unique group, it's the exact opposite.
"Some people are nice to me, some people are not," says special education student Shawn Ravey.
For students in special education, fitting in at high school can be tough.
"I need someone to talk to," he says.
At Lakeland Union High School, Shawn and other special ed students have not only someone to talk to, but much more.
"They're completely just like us. We have friendships, and, maybe we don't hang out every weekend, but just seeing them that one class period makes your whole day. People are like, how do you do that, and I'm like, how do you not?" asks Natalie Sell.
It's called Circle of Friends.
If you look on the school's website, it's listed under Activities, like Forensics or Student Newspaper.
But, makes clear Special Education Instructor Carolyn Brusch, "we're not a club. We're not a project. People make friends in natural situations. It isn't episodic. It's daily."
Every day, high schoolers with a more traditional curriculum spend part of their day in Carolyn Brusch's special education room - with their friends.
"You feel like you're helping someone in their life. You feel like you're making them feel like they have somewhere to belong," says Lakeland senior RaChell Morenweiser.
There's no division here between "normal" and "special" students.
Instead, they just do what friends do, like play games, tell stories, work together on homework, maybe a few chores, and even hit the gym.
Over the decades, special education went from nonexistent in public schools to, later, a segregated area for a segregated group at a segregated time.
Brusch has seen the evolution during her 27 years at Lakeland.
"Nobody wanted to be special anymore. They wanted to be a part of the group. That's what I like about Circle of Friends," she says. "I think it's an acknowledgement that we really have more in common than we do different, and really all people belong together."
The idea only works because of the enthusiasm of what Brusch calls her TA's.
"My TA's are great. That's the beautiful part of it. I can use each part of their personalities, each of their strengths, and each of their talents."
Each one is in Brusch's room, with her students, every day.
"I go in there, and R.J. has a nickname for me. He calls me 'Gingy'. We have nicknames, we joke around, we have fun. It's really about the relationships that you build with each of them," says Kate Herzog.
For some TA's, the idea of Circle of Friends was something new.
"I would always see them, and they'd be like, 'oh, hey Missy!' So they would always come up to me. So I didn't know how to get involved, really," says Missy Johnson.
But now that she's in the circle, "I spend Wednesdays through Fridays, all afternoon in there."
"Being in high school, it's always about fitting in, and having your group of friends that you can relate with and hang out with, and do fun things with. I just thought it would be cool to do that with everyone in this room and make them feel like anyone else walking through the hallway," says RaChell.
But you see, RaChell might have a little closer connection than some of the other TA's.
"I personally know how it feels to be treated differently by other people just because of my appearance - with a wheelchair."
It's brought her closer to her friends in the circle.
"Some kids in here learn different ways, just like I get around."
The TA's definitely have a big impact on their special ed friends.
But don't think for a moment it only goes one way.
"I was thinking about graduating the other day, and I think I'm going to miss them the most out of anyone in this school, because they mean so much to us," says Natalie.
"I have students who were TA's that graduated who still will text me, or they'll Snapchat with R.J., or will do Facetime with Hannah," says Brusch.
"The feeling of belonging, just like any other high school student, they know, you know?" says RaChell.