Brandi Barber stopped in her tracks as she turned the corner and found herself face-to-face with a wall tank filled with sharks and rays. ¶ Her face said it all. She wasn't taking another step in the Florida Aquarium. ¶ Then along came Holly Riopelle. ¶ "It's okay," Holly said soothingly, putting her arm around Brandi's shoulder as she eased her toward the glass. "They're not going to hurt you." ¶ Holly lightly knocked on the tank. The sharks and rays paid her no mind. ¶ "Come on," she continued. "I'll touch it with you."
Moments later, Brandi gingerly placed her hand next to Holly's. A giant grin crossed her face as Brandi realized she had done it. Holly smiled, too, recognizing her own accomplishment.
Then they moved on to their next adventure.
The two girls were taking part in an educational experiment Friday at the aquarium.
Teachers at Seven Springs Middle School wanted to see how well students with and without disabilities could work together, as a precursor to expanding the school's "social interaction program" next year.
Students like Brandi, a 13-year-old seventh-grader who has Down's syndrome, were paired with teams of students like Holly, a sixth-grader who's in the school's leadership club. More than 50 kids participated in the educational field trip to the aquarium.
"If a few people look at (the special needs students) positively, it trickles down," teacher Marilyn Hovsepian said. "And the kids learn to be accepting of kids who are different."
That's a message the sixth-grade leaders already carried with them.
"Kids make fun of them all the time, and I don't think it's right," said Brandon Schadler. "I came to show them that I think they're just fine."
Brandon's team acted decisively, asking Patrick, who is diagnosed with autism, to lead their group activities through the aquarium.
Patrick beamed at the opportunity, and immediately determined that the kids should check out the sting ray touch tank first.
"Do you know how to touch them?" Alexis Black asked Patrick, who shook his head in the negative. "You use two fingers. You touch really soft."
Patrick extended two of his fingers and rubbed them gently on his own arm to demonstrate. Alexis nodded as they approached the rays.
Then Patrick plunged his hand in, touching the animals just like his new friend had shown him.
Before long, the group acted as if they had been best buddies forever, though they had only really met that day.
"Hey, Patrick! Over here!" they'd shout, making sure he got to see the sleeping otters, the squawking baby ibis and other animals on his check list. (The special needs class studied aquatic life before making the trip, and they had the assignment of finding specific animals and marking them on a list.)
"It's amazing how fast they wanted to be Patrick's friend," teacher Kala Hamilton said. "They want to do it."
Some of the students with more profound handicaps couldn't verbalize their experiences about the trip. But their teachers and parents said they could see their joy.
Sommer Simmons, for instance, is visually impaired and rarely opens her eyes. She sat inches from the aquarium's giant tank of fish and eels, rapt as the parrotfish and morays glided by.
Kayla Newton cannot walk or talk as part of her disability. She smiled as she watched the fish beside Sommer.
"She could sit here all day," said Beth Antonelli, Kayla's mom. "This is her favorite thing to do."
Getting to this point wasn't easy. The Pasco County school district has limited funds for "educational experiences" (that's a field trip to most of us).
So special needs teacher Rich Doskoez, convinced his students needed the experience, applied for an innovative teaching grant, which he won. He used the money to buy supplies so the students could make and sell dog biscuits.
Some kids could only push buttons, but they did what they could. The sixth-grade leadership students helped along the way, too.
The sales went so well that the classes were able to rent buses and pay for entry to the aquarium.
"It's a win-win for everybody," said Doskoez. "We're real excited about it."
So, too, were all the kids.
"I like to get people to smile and let them know they are friends," said Promise Cregar, one of the leadership students.
Or, as Patrick put it, "I liked it." He showed off his scavenger hunt paper, pointing to all the animals he saw. He was most happy about seeing the sharks, and disappointed that he didn't find penguins.
Then he took off with Brandi and the rest of his classmates for lunch and the bus ride home.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.