ROSTRAVER TWP. — Dance moves were flaunted and friendships were made when students from five southwestern Pennsylvania schools got together Friday morning in the gymnasium at Belle Vernon Area High School in the spirit of Valentine’s Day.

The event, a Valentine’s dance, was the first event hosted by Belle Vernon for the newly established collaborative group S.T.A.R.S., a network of Life Skills teachers and transition coordinators in 20 schools in Allegheny, Washington and Westmoreland counties that seeks to integrate special needs students with the rest of the study body.

S.T.A.R.S., which stands for Students Together with Athletes Reaching Success, joins together schools that offer programs and courses that promote relationships between students. In its first year, S.T.A.R.S. events have been held in several schools in the region to encourage social development in students in Life Skills classes.

“It’s really good to get the kids together from across the different school districts, and they’ve been together a few times now, that they’ve started to make connections,” said Belle Vernon Life Skills teacher Cindy Pierce.

Many schools, Pierce explained, offer physical education courses that pair students with students with special needs. S.T.A.R.S. allows those students to compete against students at other schools, build friendships and improve social skills, she said.

The “Athletes” in S.T.A.R.S. refers to Life Skills students who participate in these gym classes.

“The mission of [S.T.A.R.S.] is for us to provide meaningful activities for the kids — with or without disabilities,” said Pierce.

The program brings students from various schools together to compete against each other in sporting events. This year, students have participated in soccer, volleyball and bowling tournaments.

The program was expanded to include dances, movie screenings and other events, with one event of some sort held each month of the school year at a different school.

Students from Belle Vernon Area, Baldwin, Canon-McMillan, Elizabeth Forward, South Fayette and Washington high schools met Friday morning to dance, play games and interact with each other.

Last year, Belle Vernon began offering a Partners Physical Education course that paired students in the general curriculum with students in Life Skills to work together in gym class, said gym teacher Emily Fitchwell.

This school year, the school founded the Friends First Club to encourage mentorship between special education students and their peers, said Fitchwell. The club’s 21 students assist at S.T.A.R.S. events.

Belle Vernon senior and Friends First Club member Meghan Lovett said holding events like the Valentine’s dance is a wonderful thing to do for the students at the various schools.

Members of the school’s Partners Art class, similar to the Partners Physical Education course, worked hard to make decorations for the dance, she added.

Baldwin High School was one of the first districts in the region to offer a Partners Physical Education class in 2002, said Baldwin transition coordinator Eric Jankoski. Over the years, the school invited other districts to observe the class and see the benefits firsthand.

Partners classes began to take shape in other school districts, Jankoski said, and students expressed their desire to compete in sporting events against peers at other schools. S.T.A.R.S. was the culmination of that.

“It really blossomed out. Every school involved with our group has ideas and volunteers to host events for students,” said Jankoski.

S.T.A.R.S. events not only benefit special needs students, but students volunteering to assist special needs students, as well.

“We’re trying to teach them about acceptance and inclusion,” Jankoski said, adding that the students will be able to take these learning experiences into adulthood.

According to Elizabeth Forward Life Skills teacher Nicole Corson, S.T.A.R.S teachers met at the beginning of the school year to discuss ideas and plan events.

Elizabeth Forward kicked off the school year in September with its third annual Camp of Champions football program, which allowed special needs students from 13 school districts to participate in football drills with encouragement from Pittsburgh Steelers Will Allen, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Arthur Moats.

In May, S.T.A.R.S. will hold a prom for Life Skills students at the Omni William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, and to conclude the school year, Baldwin will sponsor a baseball tournament with over 300 expected participants.

“[The program has] done tremendous things,” said Corson. “The Life Skills kids are now part of the high school culture. They’ve been integrated and have became friends with students outside of classes.”

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