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Pages With Special Needs Help on House, Senate floors

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Photo courtesy of Melissa Sears Photo courtesy of Melissa Sears
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The legislative session barreled forward at a furious pace April 11, just two days before the end of the 2013 regular legislative session.

Lawmakers spoke for and against bills, heard committee reports and cast votes during lengthy floor sessions.

All the while, pages brought the lawmakers water or coffee, handed out information about bills or upcoming meetings and even passed the lawmakers' notes.

It happened without a hitch in the system and with the help of five special education students from Capital High School.

The Page Program at the West Virginia Legislature puts students in sixth through 12th grades on the floor during the floor sessions of both the House of Delegates and the Senate. Pages are sponsored by lawmakers, usually from the same district, and the students serve lawmakers for the small errands and tasks they may need while the business of bills is at hand.

And while special education students are not a common sight in the page program, Melissa Sears says her students will return.

"I think people underestimate my students," Sears said. "Of course you're always nervous – I'm nervous when I take my own children places.

"Sometimes, people, not kids, people can be impulsive, but I've taught for 13 years, and I think when you talk to kids and tell them the expectations, point things out, make them observe what's around them, they always come through whether they're special ed students or regular ed students."

Delegate J.B. McCuskey, R-Kanawha, said he's been friends with Sears for years, and he knew her children wanted to be pages at the Capitol.

"It sort of sparked the idea in my brain that some of her students might want to give it a try as well," McCuskey said. "She told me they had these awesome kids who work with her students every day, and it wouldn't be any different than a regular school day."

When students page at the Capitol, they typically get lessons in government and the lawmaking process.

Sears said her students got that and more.

"I rehearsed with them, I talked with them, I went online and showed them pictures, I talked to them about hand-shaking, manners and eye contact," she said. "This was all social skills for them."

Sears said some of her students have communication issues, and multi-step tasks sometimes get jumbled for them, but the regular ed students stayed with her students and made it a modeling situation.

"I do believe when you lack social skills, when they're modeled for you in the situation, not in a role-play situation, kids learn it better," she said. "They did have fun; the kids are doers, and they enjoyed being down there, being involved, running things to different places and learning about where to go."

McCuskey, who just wrapped up his first year in the Legislature, said his mother was a social worker and his wife, Wendy, grew up around people with special needs, so the couple frequently volunteer and give to causes that benefit people with special needs.

McCuskey said he knew Sears' students just needed the opportunity.

"Those kids had as much fun as kids can have doing that, and we're going to do it every year now," McCuskey said. "They exceeded all expectations."

Sears said lawmakers can only sponsor a small number of pages per day, so her aide went with a few students to the Senate, where she heard it was the first time special education students had ever served as pages.

"I think the most important thing in regards to teaching is allowing kids to have connections, and (they got that) by going down and actually being a part of government and then actually sitting in and watching them vote on bills," she said. "I asked the kids, ‘Are you affected by anything they just did?'

"I think making them aware of getting involved is not hard; I think that's a good lesson for the kids, whether they're regular ed or special ed."