“Before I was a part of Circle of Friends, I was invisible. I saw people in middle school, but they never said hi to me. When I came to Samo and joined Circle of Friends, I made many new friends, and now people always say hi to me in the halls,” beamed an earnest and articulate Emeka Ijewere at the Santa Monica Board of Education meeting on February 21. Ijewere, along with numerous other special and general education students and parents, spoke at the City Council chambers in support of the current administering of Circle of Friends (CoF), a social language skills program created by Santa Monica High School Speech Pathologist, Barbara Palilis. CoF, which promotes social language skills for both special and general education high school students by facilitating interaction between the otherwise separated groups, has proven extremely successful at Samohi and recently in the San Diego Unified School District.
“While research shows that the most important skill for success is the ability to have appropriate social language skills,” Palilis explains, “the social gap widens for students with disabilities as they move from elementary to high school. That’s a fact.” CoF closes that gap, providing all participants with the ability to communicate properly.
This March, though, Palilis plans to retire, leaving the undetermined CoF fate to the Board of Education. CoF strengthens social language skills by pairing one special needs student with two or three general education students who then eat lunch together weekly. However, Palilis insists that it is not a lunch or friendship club. CoF is a social language skills program that has many layers: it supports special education students, teaches understanding and acceptance, provides parent support meetings, and thus sensitizes and brings inclusion to the Santa Monica community at large. The Board of Education assured concerned students and parents that CoF would continue next year, with only one pressing question: Under whose guidance? The answer is clear for participants: the new speech pathologist. Palilis has volunteered to mentor the new advisor, who has not yet been hired, maintaining that the speech pathologist has the social language skills expertise.
“He needs to have a voice for himself in the real world. CoF can not only provide a pleasurable high school experience, but teach him the necessary skills for later in life,” asserts Ijewere’s mom, Viveca Cole, of her son. Developing speech and social skills with a speech pathologist is crucial. While a one-on-one approach is traditional, the immersion CoF creates is absolutely fundamental. If the School Board decides for CoF to be run by a teacher, the last 10 years of growing student accomplishment and success will come to an early, devastating end.