Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Omaha.com
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By Joe Dejka / World-Herald staff writer
Regardless of what happens at their homecoming football game tonight, Papillion-La Vista South High students have already shown they are team players.
Students nominated a boy with Down syndrome for homecoming king.
The boy’s mother says the inclusive environment at Papio South was a big factor in his nomination.
Classmates have gotten to know Jacob Gehringer, 18, because he takes the same classes as they do, plays cymbals in the band and is on the bowling team.
His mother said inclusion benefits his classmates, too, opening their eyes to the potential of people with Down syndrome.
“Maybe someday they’ll be at their place of business and they’ll see a person who has intellectual disability and they’ll say, ‘I wonder what this person’s good at?’ instead of saying, ‘Oh, what would we do with this person?’ ” Denise Gehringer said.
The king, determined by a student vote, will be crowned on the football field after the game against Bellevue West High School.
Jacob Gehringer, whom the kids call “J.G.,” said he is excited and honored by the nomination.
He said he is friends with other boys nominated, who are equally deserving, so he will be happy whatever the outcome.
His mother works part time as a commons manager for Gross High School. She is also program coordinator for the nonprofit Ollie Webb Center Inc., which supports and advocates for people with developmental disabilities.
His father, Jeff, works in information security for First National Bank.
Jacob Gehringer has three older brothers: Joel, 27, Adam, 24, and James, 21.
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder, but it is not hereditary, Denise Gehringer said.
Down syndrome occurs when an individual has a full or partial extra copy of a particular chromosome, according to the National Down Syndrome Society.
One in every 691 babies in the United States is born with Down syndrome, the society says. Approximately 400,000 Americans have Down syndrome, and about 6,000 babies with Down syndrome are born in the United States each year.
Denise Gehringer said a lot of school districts have taken steps toward inclusion, but Papillion-La Vista has taken the extra step of including special education students to the greatest extent possible in the regular curriculum.
Jane Byers, the district’s special services director, said acceptance runs deep in Papillion-La Vista.
“Acceptance of all students and their differences is not about any one program but it is a culture in our school district,” Byers said.
It starts at a very young age, she said. All students attend their neighborhood school to the greatest extent possible and begin to develop long-lasting relationships with other students and adults, she said. Having students with disabilities in regular classrooms, hallways and the lunch room is the norm, she said.
“They teach us and model compassion and determination. Our students and adults have learned to embrace the real strengths that our students with disabilities can bring to our schools,” she said.
Papio South teachers enlist mainstream students to mentor, assist and advocate for students with special needs and disabilities. This year, officials say, the number of applicants to be a mentor far exceeded the available slots.
Next week, the Autism Action Partnership will recognize the district’s efforts in helping autistic students by awarding the district its Help Is Hope award, district spokeswoman Annette Eyman said.
Papillion-La Vista was a pilot district for the Circle of Friends program, which helps autistic students develop social skills.
Jacob has received some extra support and modifications to the curriculum, but he’s largely been side-by-side with his classmates since kindergarten, Eyman said.
As a result, he has joined in classroom discussions and learned from his peers. Socially, he’s considered part of his community, which Denise Gehringer said is what all parents want for their kids.
Students have stepped forward with creative ways to help Jacob, she said.
“The students are the key. The students are his peers. They have been primarily the ones who have modified things, offered him assistance,” she said.
For instance, Jacob plays crash cymbals in the band, but he is not proficient in reading music, his mother said. He listens and remembers it instead. Students, when necessary, cue him to play, she said.
She said Papio South officials allowed Jacob to take strength and conditioning classes, which helped him bring home four gold medals in powerlifting in his division in the 2013 Nebraska Special Olympics.
Denise Gehringer said it’s important to note that not all parents prefer inclusion. But she said it has been the right path for her son.
Nathan Cain, team leader for special education at Papillion-La Vista South, said the goal of inclusion isn’t to fit disabled students into the classroom but to ultimately make disabilities “a nonissue.”
Inclusion prepares high school kids for the diverse world they’ll enter after graduation, he said.
Schools have come a long way from the 1960s, when parents were told that their intellectually challenged kids would be institutionalized, he said.
Cain said Jacob is competing for king on his personality and merits, not his disability.
“If he gets elected homecoming king, it won’t be because he’s a kid with Down syndrome,” he said. “It’s because he’s an all-around great kid.”
This week Denise Gehringer kidded her son that if he won, she would show up at Saturday’s homecoming dance and dust off a few dance moves.
Jacob, like most teenagers, told her he wasn’t keen on the idea.
“So you’re saying I had my time?” his mother said.
“Yes,” Jacob said.
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