PS 205 breaks barriers with program

PS 205 breaks barriers with program
Students Anne Greenwell (l.) and Samantha Berlanger (r.) take their turn at the front of the class with Little Buddy Samantha Abarca. The kids all participated in the Big Buddies, Little Buddies program at PS 205 this year. Photo by Christina Santucci
By Anna Gustafson

The special education students in the PS 205 building in Oakland Gardens used to be known as “those kids upstairs.”

The other students would often go out of their way to avoid the special education students and were somewhat frightened of them. They did not want to take the same stairwells they knew the special education students used and almost never interacted with them.

But last year, that all changed when school officials started a Big Buddies, Little Buddies program that pairs students from PS 205 with the children from the special education program known as PS 224 at PS 205.

“I’ve been here 23 years and the two schools had always been separated,” said paraprofessional Lisa Olivero, who started the program. “The kids downstairs, they would look at the upstairs kids and say, ‘Who are those kids upstairs?’ That’s what we were always known as, ‘the kids upstairs.’ The kids said they were afraid to meet the other kids, but now when they see them in the hall, they’ll say hi and hug them.”

The Big Buddies, Little Buddies program began with a fifth-grade class from PS 205 and a group of special education students from PS 224, and this year the program added another fifth-grade class and a special education class. The special education children are mainly 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds who have autism and Down syndrome, among other disabilities.

The 64 students involved this year meet for about one hour to two hours a week, during which time they have done everything from reading stories about autism to cooking. On Tuesday, they constructed gingerbread houses that the students noted they had a difficult time not eating.

“At first I was a little nervous,” Sean Brown, 10, of Whitestone said of spending time with students from PS 224. “But now I see they are as much fun as regular kids.”

Eelia Shaw, 10, of Bayside echoed Brown’s sentiment and said she has gone from feeling trepidation around the special education students to wholeheartedly embracing them as her peers.

“I used to be afraid of them, and I didn’t want to walk in the same stairway as them,” Eelia said. “Now they feel like normal friends.”

The program is run by a number of officials from both schools, including fifth-grade teacher Meri Naveh, special education teacher Lori Lake and speech therapist Gail Olenick.

“The kids have bonded like I’ve never seen bonding before,” Naveh said. “When the kids came back from middle school to visit this year, the first things out of their mouths are, ‘How are the buddies?’ Towards the end, they didn’t even really see the differences. It’s really taught my children humility and not to be afraid of people who are different.”

PS 205 Principal Karen Scott-Piazza also praised the program and said school officials hope to grow it to include other grades in the future.

“It’s about the understanding that each child is different and that’s OK,” Scott-Piazza said.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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