Music filled the Carlynton High School gymnasium, as students decked out in their best green attire crowded the “dance floor.”
It was time to party.
Even state Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera showed up for the celebration.
“It was awesome,” said Michael Long, 15, a freshman at Carlynton, as he hugged Rivera. His favorite parts: getting to paint and, of course, the beads.
This was the fifth year Carlynton hosted a St. Patrick’s Day celebration as part of the STARS partnership, which stands for Schools Together with Athletes Reaching Success.
STARS, which partners students with and without disabilities at 20 high schools across southwestern Pennsylvania, aims to “expose all kids to as many learning experiences as possible, so that they can develop teamwork (and) mentorship,” said Lisa Rowley, peer-to-peer physical education teacher at Carlynton.
Each school in STARS hosts its own event each year.
“Our goal is for these kids to network and meet other students that have similar challenges,” said Jerry Pepe, transition and student assistance program coordinator at Carlynton.
Many of the schools involved in STARS have peer-to-peer programs in which students with and without intellectual disabilities are partnered on a daily basis.
At Carlynton, the program includes peer-to-peer physical education, science, art and life management.
“We just want to create an environment that is accepting, has awareness and is reaching out to love everyone,” Rowley said.
This year’s guest list for the St. Patrick’s Day celebration on March 15 included students from 10 area high schools, from Baldwin to Chartiers Valley to South Fayette.
There was dancing, bocce games, photo booths and a bagpiper performing for the crowd of 150 students.
Rivera, who spent his morning touring the school and learning about social and emotional programs the district has in place, took the time to break a move on the dance floor alongside Carlynton students.
Of course, he laughed that the only move he knows is the two-step.
“We were invited here today first to engage and participate in the celebration of community,” he said. “It really is an opportunity to see student leaders here at the school engage with many of our students who have special needs. It really is telling how educators differentiate around the needs of all students.”
Rivera said interactions like this are important: “It’s a reminder for us, this is why we do what we do.”
The day was about “community” and “celebrating the good things in education,” said Carlynton Junior-Senior High School principal Michael Loughren.
“Not only does it give all of our students in the building the opportunity to come together and celebrate, but now we’re making connections across districts,” added Carlynton assistant principal Rachel Gattuso. “These are some of our favorite events. It really gives kids from all different backgrounds an opportunity to shine.”
Carlynton junior Basem Majed, 18, and his best buddy, sophomore Adam Haas, 16, enjoyed laughs together during the event.
“We’re best friends,” Majed said, hugging Haas.
“Best friends, yeah!” Haas repeated back with a smile.
“I try to help him out, just to be himself with people,” Majed said.
At Chartiers Valley, senior Bailey Donofrio, 17, is a part of the best buddies program. She loves helping out her classmates.
“It’s really great seeing everyone included,” she said. “They’re smiling and having so much fun and dancing and doing whatever they’d like with no judgment.”
Kaitlyn Anderson, 17, a junior at Baldwin High School, said her favorite part of the day was: “Just coming. Everything that we is fun,” she said. “It’s St. Patrick’s Day!”
Teachers from across the area stood back and watched the smiles and laughs from all students.
“We just look for every opportunity we can to get the kids out to socialize and interact with others,” said Josh Stahl, special education teacher at Baldwin. “They just get to be kids and make friends.”
The events provide something different for each student, he said. “It could be friendship, overcoming adversity if it’s a bocce match. It teaches them a lot about life.”