Ready for his solo earlier this week, Michael House, 17, walked to the front of his music class at Eden Prairie High School. His teacher, Jill Boyd, met him with some words of encouragement and simple reminders: Turn and face the audience, remember to smile.
Following her prompts, he turned to face his peers, smiled, and began singing “Havana” — only breaking concentration a few times to let a brief laugh escape.
Once he’d finished, his teacher reminded him to take a bow as his classmates gave him a hearty round of applause.
Beaming, he headed back to his seat, where he soaked in Boyd’s compliments and affirmed her praise by declaring, “I have a good voice.”
It’s the sort of camaraderie that Boyd designed this class to foster. The class roster generally includes 20 to 24 students. Half of the students are enrolled in special-education services. The other half are general-education students who registered for the elective to serve as peer mentors.
The first half of the popular semester-long course, called Music Insights, entails lots of “getting to know each other” games, singing exercises, instrument exploration and music units. In the second half, the focus shifts to preparing for a public performance that Boyd describes as a themed variety show.
For many special-education students, this performance is unlike any other opportunity they’ve had in accessing the performing arts in school before — a chance to perform on stage, alongside their general-education peers.
But they’re hardly the only participants enjoying the experience. Boyd says there are more general-education registrants than she can accommodate each semester.
“I didn’t foresee it being such a popular course for the general-education students,” she said. “They do get elective credit for it. But they mostly just love working with their peers with varying disabilities.”
Building integrated environments
Boyd began teaching music at Eden Prairie High School in 2007. She credits her postsecondary emphasis on adaptive music — working with individuals with special needs in a music classroom setting — as a key attribute that helped her get the job.
Two years later, her vision for a music class that would involve special-education students who aren’t normally in traditional performing ensembles — like orchestra, band and choir — came to fruition.
Having grown up with a brother with autism, she says she’s always had an interest in working with people with special needs. And she always saw how mutually beneficial the exchange between special-education students and general-education students could be, even though those sorts of classroom settings are not commonplace in most public schools.
It’s a limitation many parents of special-education students struggle with as they advocate for more integrated classroom opportunities. “The inclusion piece, for families, is huge,” Boyd said of her class.
A culture of inclusion
Listing a handful of other integrated classes and student clubs available, Boyd says there’s a strong culture of inclusion at the high school, where at a count of roughly 300, students with special needs make up 11 percent of the student body.
For many of these students who enroll in the class, simply making it through the door counts as a success for the day, she said. Since the class meets during the last period of the day, that means they’ve had the stamina to make it through a full day.
But Boyd reminds her general-education students — who partner with their special-education peers on a weekly rotating basis — that they all need to remain flexible.
In terms of lasting impact, Boyd says a number of her mentor students have gone on to become special-education teachers, speech pathologists and nurses.
Boyd’s class has been key in shaping Rachel Ruhlin’s career aspirations. This is the 18-year-old senior’s third time taking the class — one last time before she graduates and goes on to pursue postsecondary education to become an occupational therapist for kids with special needs.
“When I look back on high school, [this class] will be one of the biggest things I remember, because you build such special relationships,” she said. “Seeing their faces when the auditorium is packed with kids … is super special.”
For instance, she’s had the opportunity to mentor Charan Markandu, 18, twice.
This semester also marks Markandu’s third time enrolling in the class. He says he likes being on stage — a point Boyd underscored by recalling his solo in the 2017 winter concert. “It’s a fun class to be in, because we sing and share and do lots of stuff and also put on a show,” Markandu said.
Asked to share the most important thing he’s learned in the class, he replied: “How to participate.”
While there’s an expectation that the general-education students lead by example, some find their greatest source of inspiration — and courage for performing on stage — comes from those they’re mentoring.
Grace Teal, 17, says she’d always identified more with sports. When it comes to the fine arts, she typically feels more out of place. But that’s not the case in Boyd’s class.
‘It’s OK to take a risk’
“In this atmosphere, I’m OK to take a risk and be the leader because you sometimes have to help others with their dance moves,” she said, adding, “I’m more comfortable with them on stage.”
Caroline Odegard, 18, has also come back to the class for a second go because she loves how much it builds not only the confidence of her special-education peers, but her own confidence as well.
She finds proof of this growth in meeting each other’s families after the concert. “One thing I love is meeting the parents of kids with special needs,” she said. “They have the biggest smiles and are so proud of their kids.”
Often these new friendships continue to grow outside of the classroom, Boyd said. Her students agreed, noting a number of their special-education peers connect with them on social media and text them invitations to hang out — a bid for social connection that they can relate to entirely.
“This class is important because it reduces the stigma that surrounds students with special needs,” Ruhlin said. “It really opens students’ eyes.”