A seminary class for special needs students touches all


    By Jeffery Hunt

    School desks and specialized wheelchairs fill an otherwise traditional classroom in the seminary building next to Provo High School.

    It is a special needs class that combines students with and without disabilities to enrich the seminary experience for all.

    This semester, Provo High became the fifth seminary in Utah Valley to offer the program for special needs students.

    The seminary program at Oakridge is the headquarters for special needs religious education.

    Ken Payne, principal of the Oakridge Seminary, said the special needs seminary program is designed to help students with physical or mental disabilities learn the gospel and prepare for service in the church.

    “The most severe kids are nonverbal,” said Payne. “You wouldn”t have any idea you are communicating with some of them.”

    The seminary teachers in the program are trained to meet the needs of disabled students. As long as the disabled student is enrolled in high school, Payne said he or she may enroll in seminary.

    “We teach our teachers and friends how to communicate on a spiritual level,” he said.

    Unlike other systems of teaching the disabled, Payne said special needs classes do not focus on the disability.

    “We aren”t teaching the handicapped body, but the whole spirit,” he said. “When teachers and friends learn to communicate with the spirit directly, it”s a whole new experience.”

    The Provo High seminary staff chooses Provo High students to help in the special needs class. These volunteers are called “seminary friends,” and they help disabled students in the class. Volunteers help clarify the seminary lesson to the students, as well as assist in the students” special needs.

    Payne said he thinks the seminary friends get a better seminary experience because they are learning gospel principles through teaching others.

    “This is the secret a lot of our friends have discovered,” he said.

    Seminary friends are asked to serve in the special needs class for one semester, but Payne said friends often ask to stay for a second.

    “I attend the class because I wanted to,” said Amy Billings, a 17-year-old seminary friend. “I thought it would be a good experience.”

    With the approval of the seminary staff, Billings serves in the special needs class instead of attending her regular seminary class. In each class, she sits with a student, called her companion, and helps him understand the lesson.

    “It”s amazing to see him [her companion] learn the scriptures and to see the light in his eyes,” she said. “It is encouraging to me to see that if someone with a disability can understand the gospel, then anyone can.”

    Billings, who hopes to become a teacher someday, said she has never been this close to teaching others.

    “Other [seminary] teachers assume you know the basics,” she said. “Here, we don”t move on until everyone understands.”

    Billings said serving as a friend enhances her seminary experience.

    “It makes you think more about what you can give to others,” she said.

    Casey Despain, 17, also serves as a seminary friend during his regular release time period. He said the experience teaches him the scriptures apply to everyone.

    “You always think the scriptures are a lot deeper than they are,” he said. “They can be simple. They can help us at any level.”

    Despain said his seminary teacher, Brother Matt Bardsley, a sophomore BYU student from Stevensville, Mont., is always excited for class.

    “He”s not just here to teach,” he said. “He”s wants us to learn.”

    In his first semester as a seminary teacher, Bardsley was assigned the first special needs class at Provo High.

    “It”s hard,” he said. “There is a varied range of how students learn, and you have to make sure the atmosphere in the class is right for learning. But it”s the best job in the world.”

    Bardsley said for students to learn, there must be an overwhelming sense of love, security and safety for everyone in the room.

    “If the students aren”t comfortable, the spirit can”t enter their hearts,” he said. “You can tell a difference between the good days and the bad.”

    Because each special needs student is paired with a friend, the lesson is personalized to meet the various needs of each student, Bardsley said.

    “It would be very difficult for one teacher to adapt to so many different students with varying disabilities,” he said.

    Bardsley said the parents of disabled students support the program and do not feel their students are excluded.

    Principal Payne at the Oakridge seminary said the special needs program is growing.

    Local high schools are able to accommodate more students with disabilities, Payne said. While enrollment at Oakridge seminary is decreasing, enrollment for special needs seminaries at public schools is increasing.

    Special needs seminary classes are now offered at Springville, Spanish Fork, and Payson Jr. and Sr. High Schools.

    Payne said this growth is lessening the need for the seminary at Oakridge, and it might not be needed as soon as the end of this school year or next.

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