Ridgefield Best Buddies seeks to ‘keep making connections’ between students

RIDGEFIELD — Since its inception last summer, the Ridgefield Best Buddies program has helped local students with disabilities build meaningful connections with their peers and community while working on critical social skills.

The summer program recently finished its second year of operation, and, Anthony Showa, assistant director of special education for the school district, said he hopes to keep making connections between the program’s students and the broader community.

Best Buddies pairs students with individualized education plans and students without disabilities for a day camp.

Running from July 11 to Aug. 5, the program received about 60 to 70 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and ran in two sections: a kindergarten through fifth grade section at Barlow Mountain Elementary School and a middle school section at Scotts Ridge Middle School.

For this year’s program, Showa said he recruited students based on their age, grade level and school enrollment to match them with students with individualized education plans, or IEPs.

He said the idea was to have the students recognize other students in their grade level that they see throughout the regular school year so that they can forge relationships over the summer that continue throughout the coming seasons.

Looking ahead to next year, Showa said his goal is to continue to broaden the program.

“If we have a growing number of students that require social skills programming, I want Best Buddies to reflect that growth so the program hopefully would grow in response to the students that may require it on their IEP,” he said.

Another goal of Showa’s is to make sure they do everything they can to make Ridgefield Best Buddies “truly a community connection in that the students who come for Best Buddies have it carry over into the regular school year and also make meaningful connections in other ways around the communities.”

Supporting students’ social skills

When Showa came to Ridgefield four years ago, he said the district maintained a working relationship in contract with the Boys & Girls Club of Ridgefield for the district’s summer programs.

Through that relationship, Showa said Ridgefield students with an IEP had a place to go for inclusion opportunities to work on their social skills.

Showa explained the IEP program is a provision set forward by federal law for students with disabilities to receive specially designed instruction in school. Meanwhile, the provision of summer special education programs is designed for students who need to maintain certain skills that might backslide or regress over the summer. Showa said these skills can be “any skill that’s identified for the child as being one that requires specially designed instructions.”

Along with working on their academics, Showa said some students with IEPs participate in the district’s Extended School Year program over the summer to work on their social skills, learn how to cooperate with their peers and become “meaningful participants in their general education classes.”

Ridgefield’s Extended School Year Program for elementary school students is held at Barlow Mountain Elementary School; for secondary school students, the program is held at Scotts Ridge Middle School.

Origins of the program

For the first few years of his career, Showa said the district sent students from the Extended School Year program to the Boys & Girls Club at 41 Governor St.so they could participate in the club’s summer camp. Through this arrangement, the students could work on their academics at the school in the morning and their social skills at the club in the afternoon.

When COVID-19 hit, Showa said the executive director of the Boys & Girls Club determined that, based on state health regulations during the pandemic, the club needed to run “a much smaller, more spaced out program with very limited membership.”

“Because the state was also telling us that we needed to able to implement student special services, we decided to try to build something of our own so that we wouldn’t have to affect the Boys & Girls Club programming,” Showa said. “And then we could also not worry about COVID-19 tracing and intermingling too many kids to make infection rates go up.”

Showa said Ridgefield Best Buddies was built as a program that would mimic the experience students would have at the Boys & Girls Club, but on their own campus at Barlow Mountain Elementary School. In collaboration with several teachers and service providers, Showa designed an opportunity for students with IEPS to come in and work on their social skills, and recruited Ridgefield students without disabilities (or “typical peers”) to play with them - thereby creating a cooperative play experience in a day camp style setting.

Reminiscing on Ridgefield Best Buddies’ first summer in 2021, Showa said the program had two weeks of six-hour days in which students worked together in art, music, sports, games and other classes. He said the classes were staffed by special education teachers, school psychologists, school counselors and other related service providers necessary for implementing programs for students with IEPs so that the students without IEPs could cooperate and play with them “while they were being supported from a social skills standpoint.”

The 2021 program welcomed about 40 students in kindergarten through fifth grade in attendance — roughly half of whom had IEPs and half of whom didn’t have IEPs.

During the first year of operation, Showa said they intended to make Ridgefield Best Buddies a local chapter of Best Buddies, “the world’s largest organization dedicated to ending the social, physical and economic isolation of the 200 million people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” according to the Best Buddies website.

But due to Best Buddies’ specific parameters for recruitment and other factors, Showa said Ridgefield’s program isn’t officially affiliated with Best Buddies International.

Last summer, Showa said the program’s students went on a field trip to Prospector Theater and had a relay day in the park, during which time people approached them to ask more about Ridgefield Best Buddies’ mission.

“It’s a nice way of making sure that Ridgefield understands and appreciates as a town, as a public, what we do, why we do it and how much we value our students with special needs and that they really are elevated and celebrated in our town,” Showa said.

As Ridgefield Best Buddies works to keep making connections, Showa said if they can find a way to reconnect with the Boys & Girls Club or connect with other community resources, they can keep the program interconnected in the community.