Kids high-fived each other. The school band played “Great Balls of Fire.” And the entire Kalles Junior High School student body gave an enthusiastic send-off to their team of special athletes headed for competition at Puyallup’s Sparks Stadium.
Each year, the Puyallup School District sponsors a track-and-field day for special-education students. More than 300 from around the district participated in Friday’s event.
It’s a tradition at Kalles to give their special athletes a big boost as they head off to the stadium. Every year, the entire student body – more than 800 seventh- through ninth-graders – lines the halls, forming a human tunnel for the athletes to pass through. Students hold signs bearing messages of encouragement.
“We make a conscious effort to include our special education students into everything we do at Kalles,” said Principal Mario Casello. “They’re part of the culture.”
Friday morning, the excitement was palpable in teacher Ben Riippi’s classroom, as about two dozen special-education students donned bright green T-shirts and gathered for the big event. Special athletes were paired with peer tutors – mainstream students who assist in special-ed classes – for guidance throughout the day.
“I’m excited. It’s going to be a good day,” said ninth-grade peer tutor Whitney Webb.
“Are we ready?” Riippi asked the assembled students. “Then let’s have fun.”
The procession through the halls took only minutes, but it brought smiles to the faces of the athletes, and their parents.
Crystal Harrison, mother of special-education ninth-grader Luke, said the annual event makes her heart swell with Kalles pride.
“It lets me know that he is a valued member of the student body,” she said.
Luke gets around in a wheelchair. He is non-verbal, sometimes using an iPad to communicate. But his excitement at being part of the track day is always apparent, his mom said.
“His squeals of joy let me know that he loves it,” she said.
While the celebration is aimed at the special athletes, the tradition resonates with the rest of the student body as well.
Eighth-grader Lorin Entrekin, a member of the school band, said she has a little sister with autism, so the tradition means a lot to her.
Band member Andrew Hogue, also an eighth-grader, was happy to be part of the party.
“If I had a life-changing injury or whatever, it would be super-cool to have the whole school cheering for you,” he said.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635