Whether in school hallways or at Soldier Field, students throughout CPS are walking this month in support of classmates with autism.
At Lozano Elementary, the plan was to host the annual walk-a-thon on the streets of Wicker Park so that the entire school community could join in supporting students with autism. Though they were driven indoors by the cold and rain, the weather did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm.
"We marched through the halls and up and down the stairs, carrying our banners and falling in step with the song 'Happy'", said Lozano principal Terry Campos. "It was a festive mood, though we hope to be out in the neighborhood next year."
Sponsored by the school's special education teachers, this walk-a-thon has been a Lozano tradition for more than a decade. This year, students walked in support of the more than 30 children currently in the school's autism cluster program. These students are integrated at every level, including PE, computers, and all school activities where inclusion is possible.
Though more than 90 percent of them are from low-income households, Lozano students managed to raise $150 for Autism Speaks, the organization that funds research for the condition affecting their friends.
"We believe that every child deserves a high-quality education regardless of their challenges," said Principal Campos. "These students are a part of our team, and our entire school community embraces them. It's moving to see how well our students take care of each other."
A day after Lozano's indoor walk-a-thon, students, staff and parents from McClellan Elementary were at Soldier Field for the Autism Speaks Walk, everyone wearing specially-designed t-shirts with the puzzle pieces symbolic of autism.
"This is our second year participating in the Autism Speaks Walk," said McClellan Assistant Principal Tina Walker. "We do it to raise awareness and to support the students in our autism cluster program, which draws from all across the city."
The program at McClellan includes 40 students in grades Pre-k – 6, and recently added a sensory room to help improve the overall experience of autistic students.
"Children with autism can be easily overstimulated," said Walker. "This is a small, comfortable room with adjustable lighting and plenty of manipulatives and tactile items that can appeal to their senses and help manage anxiety."
Similar to Lozano, autistic students at McClellan are very much a part of the school's culture, being mainstreamed whenever possible and always made to feel supported by students and staff.
"This is a great environment for our autistic students, because they never feel like they are separate," said Assistant Principal Walker. "And for our students without autism, the cluster program has given them an opportunity to learn so much. It's of great benefit to our entire school community."