By Jason Wesseldyk
Everyone wants a sense of belonging. To know they are valued. To be included.
That was the message shared during Inclusion Week at Otsego Public Schools that began Monday, Jan. 29, and ran through Friday, Feb. 2.
And after being exclusively an Otsego High School event the previous two years, OHS RISE students and their Links took the show on the road this year to share Inclusion Week with the entire district.
OHS Rise students are Level 2 and 3 special education students. Links are general education students who help Rise students with everyday activities and getting the Rise students involved in the school community.
OPS special education teacher Allie Rittenhouse served as the lead mentor for Inclusion Week activities.
“(Inclusion Week) is about improving ourselves for the better and expanding our thinking as a community and individual,” Rittenhouse said. “Additionally, it’s a time to allow students who don’t normally get to be leaders to show the skills they have and educate others.”
Rittenhouse was thrilled that the OHS Rise students were able to take the message of Inclusion Week beyond the walls of the high school.
“The students had done a great job with it the last two years at just the high school and I felt that they were ready to expand and work district-wide,” Rittenhouse said. “It is giving them the opportunity to show their leadership skills in different ways and allows them the practice of many different life and school skills.”
The OHS Rise students and their Links traveled to Otsego Middle School, Alamo Elementary School, Dix Street Elementary School and Washington Street Elementary School. Assemblies were held at all of the schools with the exception of Washington Street Elementary, as visits were made to each individual classroom there.
The Rise students were involved in making all the decisions pertaining to Inclusion Week with help from their Links and guidance from their teachers. That included organizing dress-up days with key messages of inclusion for the district and setting up tables at lunches for students to sign an inclusion pledge if they so chose.
“The students have worked really hard over the last couple of months to plan everything and I am very proud of all the work they have put into this event,” Rittenhouse said. “These kids can do so much and giving them this opportunity has shown us and them what they are capable of.”
Along with putting a focus on inclusion for the week, it’s also a chance to highlight what our district already does to include others.
Prior to the start of Inclusion Week, OHS RISE students were crowned as royalty of the Snowcoming game on Friday, Jan. 26. That continued a tradition that started in 2020.
According to Rittenhouse, the goal of Inclusion Week is the “continued support and acceptance of all students at all grade levels.”
“Getting to educate and start talking about inclusion at a younger age is only going to help all students,” Rittenhouse said. “The younger we teach it, the longer they get to learn about it and experience it.
“The future of the world is our youth, and they are the ones that will make this world and our community one of acceptance and support for everyone.”
As part of Inclusion Week, several OPS students, staff members and parents were interviewed about the importance of inclusion. That video, which was shared with students throughout the district, can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaXGASnSyg8.
By Jason Wesseldyk