Fifth-grader Jose Maya read a book about alligators aloud to fellow fifth-grader Erik Kelly on Wednesday morning. 

Kelly laid out across the floor, his nose inches from the book. After it was finished, he called out to Maya — getting the pronunciation of "Jose" right on his second try — to play a game, "Don't Break the Ice." 

Kelly has Down Syndrome and struggles in some social situations. But a Washington Elementary program that pairs students in special education programs with students in mainstream education programs has helped him grow comfortable in new settings and given students of all advancement levels new opportunities.

"It kind of helps ease a lot of the anxieties they have," said special education teacher Samantha Bushman. 

Bushman was talking about special education students, but the statement could also apply to students who haven't interacted as much with their peers with special needs. One girl, paired with a student with autism who uses deep breathing to help get on track after crying, now helps the student with breath through crying spells at recess. Kelly refused to go into the crowded lunchroom earlier this year, but now goes with a mentor student. 

Kelly has difficulty communicating, but "they've figured out their own little language to understand each other," Bushman said. 

This year at Washington, special education classrooms were moved into the building's annex, a separate, adjacent group of rooms. Teachers decided to make an extra effort to make sure special education students weren't isolated, integrating a mentoring program, providing extra physical education opportunities and holding a "Respect Rally" assembly.

It puts the school in line for a Special Olympics Unified Champion School designation, something given to a small percentage of schools. Such schools take unusual steps to create "a socially inclusive school climate that emphasizes acceptance, respect and human dignity for all students," the group's website says. 

The general student body "has become a lot more accepting of everybody's differences," said special education teacher Beth Gregg. 

Federal education laws require that students with disabilities are educated in the most inclusive setting that's reasonably possible and still meets their needs. 

Individualized Education Plans, sometimes-complicated guides for how students with special needs are educated, specifies when a student receives individual services, when they're in a special education classroom and when they're in a grade-level classroom. 

The law doesn't mandate social inclusion — whether kids get along with one another. But school climate, how teachers and administrators build a culture, has been a growing focus for many schools. 

While playing the ice breaker game, Kelly was disturbed by a noise outside the classroom and pulled back from the game. Maya retrieved a pair of noise cancelling headphones for Kelly, and they went back to the game. 

When asked why social bonds helped her students, Bushman said it boils down to confidence. 

"It makes them feel like everybody else."

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.