By Mary Stachyra
In many schools, the amount of interaction between special and general education students is limited. Lois Eder, a special education teacher at Susan Wagner High School in Staten Island, aims to change that.
Eder, 54, believes it’s beneficial for students with different types of educational needs to interact with and learn from one another. To advance that goal, she and a co-worker developed the curriculum for a peer leadership program designed to teach students conflict resolution and leadership skills.
General education students and special education students take the New Strides in Leadership program side by side. It has helped build the students’ self-confidence, encouraged them to step up as mentors to others and helped combat bullying behavior, Eder said.
“Some of the students had never come in contact with each other on a social level, so we did activities that built trust,” Eder said.
The program is designed to help the students overcome stereotypes and biases and learn respect instead, she said.
Even people outside of the system have taken notice of the course and what it’s designed to achieve. Organizers of the 15th annual Season for Nonviolence conference at the United Nations invited the students to come and speak at the event this spring. The experience was transformative for them, Eder said.
“They went from not being able to speak to a counterpart to speaking at the United Nations,” Eder said.
Colleagues and students’ families say the course is effective.
Yulya Ostrovskaya’s sister Elizabeth lost her vision two years ago and experienced some related medical problems. “This class is what encouraged my sister to start to slowly participate in school,” Ostrovskaya wrote when nominating Eder for a Blackboard Award.
“This class teaches students how to feel good about themselves, how to resolve conflicts, how to deal with bullying and so much more. My sister really enjoys this class, and I haven’t seen her have a desire for anything the past two years,” she wrote.
Eder said there’s a reason why the course is popular with families: “They’ve never had this experience where their children could be bridged with regular ed students on a level playing field.”
Drawing on her 32 years of experience as an educator, Eder developed the program together with George Anthony, a conflict resolution specialist. Eder earned a B.A. in elementary education from Queens College and a master’s degree from the College of New Rochelle and professional certification in school building leadership.
“Basically, I have always felt that all students should have the right to learn,” Eder said, explaining why she chose special education as a career. “And I thought I’d like to be an advocate for them and teach them as much as I can, so that they can flourish as young adults.”
Eder hopes to see the New Strides in Leadership program spread to other schools. She said the benefits of the program can be seen in mainstream and special needs students alike.
“We became one family and one community, where we embraced love and respect and tolerance,” Eder said.
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