Administrators & Educators
Circle of Friends (CoF) has been such an incredible program for students with special needs in Modoc County! In our first year of implementation, we are finding it to be a very meaningful way of addressing social skill goals and generalizing certain communication and social skills into public settings outside of the classroom. Most importantly, CoF gives our students membership into an inclusive school community; they feel included and know that they have friends.
Hannah Curcio Modoc County SELPA Director
Circle of Friends (CoF) has had a huge impact in the Stockton Unified School District. The spirit of inclusion is alive and well in seven of our district’s schools. Four high schools, two elementary schools and one special center are currently participating in the CoF program. Hundreds of students are involved, and the program is entrenched at each school. At each site, special education students are treated as an integral part of the entire student body. Teachers, students, administrators and support staff are all cognizant of the inclusion process, and many barriers have been breached. It is a joy to watch as people come together to support children with special needs. Circle of Friends is truly a “win-win” program, where everyone who participates receives their own intrinsic reward.
What began with two high schools and a vision of inclusion, the program has blossomed into wonderful life-changing experiences for many people and the community. CoF is a common topic at IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings. Parents often request that their child participate in the program. Students proudly wear their CoF shirts on campus. Inclusion, tolerance, and diversity are evident in even our district’s toughest inner city schools. I am not sure who benefits the most, the general education students or the students with special needs. The program works on so many levels and has become an integral part of the participating schools.
Robert Lichter Program Specialist, Stockton Unified School District SELPA
Without hesitation, I am honored and privileged to have been the driving force in the adoption of Circle of Friends (CoF) at Clairemont High School in San Diego, California. This program envelops the school by weaving the understanding and acceptance of individual differences into the hearts and minds of our youth. Staff, administrators, parents and community members witness a school climate that includes all students regardless of abilities. A feeling of acceptance is worn on the faces of students who participate in CoF.
In our rapidly changing world, it is imperative that we as educators provide our youth with experiences that build moral fiber and character. Our youth long for direction and guidance; therefore, it is critical that we heed their call and provide them with every opportunity to become caring and productive human beings. CoF enables students to see life through an equitable lens, noticing that people are far more alike than different. As our students continue to seek out models and leaders in which to emulate, it is our duty and responsibility to bring a program such as CoF into all secondary schools so that all students can reach their potential.
Marianne Miller M.A. CCC-SLP Speech Lanuage Pathologist, Clairemont High School
Circle of Friends ~ the Path to Inclusion… Those words were lived out last night at the end-of-the-year banquet for Circle of Friends (CoF). Besides the fact that the cafeteria never looked so beautiful and clean, it was night that was filled with humanity!
I spent most of the program wiping the tears from my eyes. Watching the elation, support and encouragement was inspiring. There was so much love, respect and friendship in that room and NO ONE was left out. EVERYONE was part of the event.
To hear a student speak who didn’t say his first words until he was six years old was pure joy. To hear a mother’s peace at her son’s socialization was heart warming. To hear a student say, ‘I thought I would help others grow, but they helped me,’ was humbling. To see the smiles on the faces of students getting awards and dancing the hula was heart warming.
Needless to say, CoF is not the MODEL for students but for all of us! We all need to journey down the path of inclusion.
Nancy Regas Counselor, Patrick Henry High School
When I was first acquainted with Circle of Friends (CoF), it was at a SELPA conference four years ago. I knew immediately that this was an organization that I wanted to bring to Valencia High School. When I saw students from Santa Monica High School preset the concept of the program at the conference, I was struck by how much general education students were getting out of their participation. This fact has proven true at Valenica High School as well! Our general education students have grown in the genuine spirit of acceptance, and our officers have developed leadership skills that are unmatched by any other organization on campus.
The benefit to of CoF to a student with special needs is evident. The CoF model is so successful because it offers students with challenges, in the areas of language and social skills, real life opportunities to transfer the skills they learn working one-on-one with a speech pathologist to a natural setting with peer friends. However, general education students, too, have learned an attitude of acceptance and inclusion that will serve them well beyond their high school years and into adulthood. The members of CoF deliver “Different Ability Awareness” presentations to theirs peers so even students who are not part of the CoF program are touched by and exposed to the message of inclusion and acceptance. At Valencia High School, this has been awe inspiring!
Tracy L. Moscoe Assistant Principal, Valencia High Shool
Unless you have a child that is isolated, you may not appreciate what a social skills program like this can do for the spirit of a child who may not have friends due to being a bit different. To have someone to call up and talk to, to go to an event with a peer can be priceless beyond your belief.
Circle of Friends (CoF) aims to improve and strengthen social language skills. But it also creates an environment for teens that will nurture and inspire them with meaning, purpose, ad self-value, a sense of connection to and responsibility for the greater community…We see this as essential to developing and producing the members and leaders of tomorrow.
When we were told our son had autism it felt like someone had kicked us in the stomach. We didn’t know what it was or how it would impact his life or our life as a family. As he became older, we realized he needed opportunities to have friends and participate in activities like other children his age. This has proven to be one of the biggest challenges of all! How does someone with limited language make friends? How does someone his age make friends?
The answer: Circle of Friends (CoF).
We were fortunate this past year to be part of the inaugural year of the CoF program at Clairemont High School. Our son attended dances and social functions and ate lunch with other participants. We can honestly say that we saw tremendous growth in our son this year. CoF is a program that has provided a unique and special opportunity. Developing friends at school is something that requires effort and structure in order for it to happen. Before this program, our son did not have any school friends.
The value of this program…PRICELESS!!!
Bruce & Shirley Fett
Please let all of Kristina’s mentors know how much she appreciates their friendship, friendly smiles, friendly greetings on campus between classes and friendly faces at Valencia High School (VHS) activities. The positive impact on her self-esteem has been quite evident. Their help with her speech, language and social skills is greatly appreciated by us when it comes from her peers. They are contributing to her success more than they know. They have been very nice to invite her to other activities at VHS, and Kristina is looking forward to developing friendships with them. We appreciate their positive influence and their willingness to use their time to help Kristina understand the value of good friends. Thank you for all of your work to establish Circle of Friends (CoF) at VHS. We look forward to its continued success and hope that someday all of the students at VHS will be part of CoF.
Dave Geeting and Barbara Wright
Jeffrey has autism and is one happy camper at Circle of Friends (CoF). He is very comfortable in this setting and looks forward to all the activities. This represents a dramatic change for someone who generally prefers to be alone. I sense that for the first time in his life he has a sense of belonging to a group. This is wonderful social progress and a tribute to the program. Bravo CoF!
Circle Summer (CS) is so important that we plan our family vacations around it so that Robin does not miss a single day. Robin has looked forwrad to CS with a fervor. The program provides the opportunity for consistent, quality time to be spent with non-disabled friends in a nurturing and safe environment.
One of the great things about CS is that it is three days in a row per week for four consecutive weeks. This gives the students the chance to really get to know each other and to bond. It facilitates the growth of these friendships which is very important. They do exciting things like bowling, miniature golf and visiting museums, but there is time for more quiet activities like relaxing on the beach, looking for shells, or just talking. Lunch together is a daily activity so they get practice with money and ordering food, besides all the social interaction that comes with eating a meal with others. Robin’s communications skills have improved dramatically.
During CS, Robin is happier than at any other time in her life.
Walking the hallways every day in high school, one is surrounded by profanity, cynicism, and generally a lot of self-involved people. Being able to come to the Circle of Friends (CoF) room every day and interact with sincere students and make genuine friendships, is just, well…incredibly refreshing. Whenever I feel pessimistic, CoF is always my saving grace. Whenever I feel sad, my friends in CoF cheer me up.
My involvement with Circle of Friends (CoF) in high school fundamentally shifted my perspective of the world. I entered CoF as a rebellious sophomore. I was struggling academically and was headed down the wrong path. CoF asked me to have lunch once a week with a fellow student who had Fragile X Syndrome. Our ensuing friendship redefined my outlook on life. I became more sensitive, more grounded and more caring. My grades went up, as did my involvement with other extra circular activities. As I’ve gone on to graduate from NYU and start my own business, I have maintained my friendship. We regularly go to dinner and the movies. I consider him to be one of my best friends, and I consider joining CoF one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.
CEO, TaskUs and 2014 CoF Student Leadership Award Recipient
Circle of Friends helped me realize that everyone has feelings.
Johnny, Grade Four
Recently, someone mentioned that my role in high school was one of a volunteer. I never considered myself as a volunteer but rather a participant, one who got as much out of the program as anyone else. I gained self-confidence, found balance in my life and most importantly learned to make lifelong friends. These are the skills I will carry forward with me no matter what challenges lie ahead.
Marketing Strategy Manager, Ford Motor Company;
Past CoF Board Treasurer
I’ve seen benefits in my own life because now I am more accepting of differences, and I don’t look down on anyone with disabilities. This program has opened my eyes to see that people are people no matter what and everyone needs friends.
Participating Circle of Friends (CoF) really enhanced my life. Not everybody hears Jessica when she speaks, but I do. When I hear “lala” I know she’s calling my name and when I hear “peetha toosay,” I know she’s reminding me to meet her in the cafeteria for lunch on Tuesdays.
Once a week I was honored to eat lunch with my friend Jessica. We’d laugh together, just like all the other laughing tables that sit together at lunch. Two years of the CoF program gave me the opportunity to befriend so many peers on campus that I wouldn’t have otherwise sought out.
I used to be annoyed by my peers’ response to Jessica and the other “challenged” kids in the special needs program at Santa Monica High School. I now know that I was especially fortunate to have something that many of the other high school kids didn’t even know existed. When I wasn’t even looking for it, I found a jewel that sparkles inside me wherever I go. Jessica has taught me everything that I need, and that is patience and compassion. Instead of feeling annoyed when other kids laugh at her as she walks by them or gets frustrated when she’s trying to explain something to them, I feel compassion for their lack of understanding, validating that their ignorance leads only to fear and nervous laughter. When they laugh AT her, Jessica and I both laugh WITH each other, sharing a special bond that no one can bully or pull apart.
When my classmates see me having fun with Jessica, they became less afraid to interact themselves. I am grateful for the influence that our relationship has had on others, but most of all, I am thankful that we still have each other, long after my transfer to another high school. I continue to take her out to lunch or to bring her home just to pet my dog or smile at each other. If your college hosts a similar program on campus, I will seek it out, and if not, I will create one.
Circle of Friends is important to me every day at school. With Circle of Friends, I get to know many other people at SAMOHI, and they say hi to me on campus. When I am at home, I get phone calls and invitations to go to lunch or movies. Circle of Friends has great parties. It may not be easy for friends to get to know an autistic girl like me, but they succeeded. I started with a short list of friends, but each year, it keeps growing longer and longer. I want younger autistic kids to have the advantages that I have enjoyed form Circle of Friends.
Amelia Jones, High School Student
I learned that no matter what I see on a person is not what you see on the inside.
Justin, 4th Grade
Circle of Friends helped me realize that everyone has feelings.
Eva, 4th Grade
I liked Circle of Friends because I learned to be a better friend.
Briana, 3rd Grade
Throughout this program, I've had the pleasure of changing someone’s life. But, in the long run, they're the ones changing mine. 'Circle of Friends' is a great opportunity for the students involved to break down this barrier that alters the way we physically see each other. But if you had the opportunity to spend time with these amazing people, you would be able to see that they possess every quality we strive to achieve. Humbleness, gentleness, and most importantly a heart bigger than you can imagine. Thank you for allowing me the chance to change someone's life. William Shakespeare once said, "it is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves". My new friends are helping me discover my true destiny and I hope I've been as beneficial to them as they've been to me.
Jenna Gallo, 7th Grade
I had some bullies that used to tease me about my hand. I used to get teased a LOT of times. [And it made me feel] sad and upset. [After joining Circle of Friends (CoF)], I felt happy. I felt happy to be in CoF. I like everyone here, everyone I know. They’re nice friends.
Student with Special Needs
In the 17 years I have been on this earth, most of my childhood revolved around kids bullying me for my disability and teachers refusing to accommodate my needs. I have spina bifida which requires a V.P. shunt. I have had six surgeries and have faced physical challenges, but that has not stopped me from achieving my goals.
Quite a few times at a young age, I found myself questioning my existence and what my purpose in life is. Was it to suffer? To be harassed everyday? What was my use in the world? By the time I reached high school, my hopes of being accepted were shattered. My viewpoint of the world was that kids with disabilities were simply outcasts.
However, on my first day of high school something interesting caught my eye. Little did I know, that my perspective in life was about to change forever. As I started to walk around campus, I noticed that there was a vast amount of special needs students on campus. This surprised me because at my other schools I usually saw a small amount of special needs students. In a weird way, I kind of felt like kids with disabilities were usually kept in a room with only kids like them. Despite my assumptions, as I looked around more, I saw that many of these kids were smiling, laughing, and interacting not only with other individuals with disabilities but also with general education students too.
When I arrived at my first class, I met a teacher, Mr. Reynolds, who introduced me to a program called Circle of Friends (CoF). The program’s main goal was to get special education and general education students together and for diversity to occur. I was in awe how everyone on campus was so open-minded. I witnessed students opening doors for kids in wheelchairs, general education students taking special needs students to lunch with them, and met teachers who were more than willing to accommodate their students. Seeing my surroundings showed me that “inclusion” was possible.
CoF has helped me gain confidence in myself. I now know my self-worth and what I have to offer. Today, I am a girl that is still “working on her masterpiece” and will not let anyone interfere with any of my goals. Yes, I still have a long road ahead of me and I know it will not always be easy, but I will find my way to success and happiness. Personally, I have seen the amazing bonds CoF has established. On campus special education kids do not even exist, because everyone is equal and the same. The culture of Cesar Chavez High School and CoF has impacted the school’s campus. Getting introduced to a program such as this one impacted my life immensely. I am no longer a person who feels worthless. Instead, I am eager to show the world who Victoria Franco is and what I have to offer.
What do I want the world to grasp from my experience? I want people to know that just because you have a “disability” it does not mean that you have nothing to offer the world. Everyone has something to contribute and a legacy to establish, but the key to doing so is a positive attitude.
Student with Special Needs