Many students join school programs to obtain academic- or service credits.
But one Morristown High School group prides itself on not giving its members credit.
It’s called ALL IN — short for Allies in Learning and Leading: Inclusive Network–
and its selfless approach was honored last month by the New Jersey State Board of Education.
ALL IN was among 10 student groups from across the state recognized “for academic success as well as leadership qualities and volunteerism both at school and within their communities,” the state board said on its website.
Members of ALL IN — who include students with special needs–meet twice a week during lunch and once a month after school to practice peer inclusion, embrace diversity, and dissolve barriers between students of all abilities.
They do it for the sake of doing it, not for credit offered by service-based clubs such as National Honors Society or Key Club, or for resume-building, according to students and school officials.
“It’s not appropriate to be earning recognition for hanging out with somebody that may just be different than you,” said Jessica Neu, creator of ALL IN and director of pupil services for the Morris School District.
When MHS Key Club students pushed for service hours after the annual ALL IN Holiday Dance, ALL IN Student Board member Erin Joel said no.
“You’re not going to get service hours for helping kids feel incorporated with the whole student body,” she told them.
ALL IN Student Board member Amy Albin believes that giving out service hours only would sow divisions within the group.
“We’re really all one,” she said.
Club members are drawn back for reasons less tangible but arguably more valuable than service hours: To “incorporate and involve special education students into school events,” said Joel.
“We also want to treat everyone equally, because everyone should be treated equally,” added Student Board member Erik Vataker.
“You’re giving out a helping hand to show them that they’re not different, we’re all the same and we can all do the same activities and have fun together,” said Junior Rondon, a senior who is on the ALL IN board.
Reaching out to those with special needs has always been a passion for Joel, who has been teaching catechism classes to students with disabilities since 7th grade. Now, her focus is on spending time with students from her school.
“I love helping them get involved and putting a smile on their faces,” she said.
Joel, a junior, was among seven MHS students recognized by the state Board of Education. The others were Albin, Rondon, Andrew Chin and Leo ruiz, all seniors; and sophomores Erik Vataker and Rhys Harris.
ALL IN started at Morristown High in the spring of 2014, and was extended last fall to Frelinghuysen Middle School.
The program has evolved from students sharing lunchtimes and just hanging out, to attending school sporting events and staging an annual holiday dance.
ALL IN has also helped jumpstart creation of teams for track, cross country, swimming and wrestling, run by Unified Sports Special Olympics: Project Unify.
The Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities; its Project Unify initiative empowers schools and educators to provide children of varying abilities a chance to play together as teammates.
Project Unify awarded the Morris School District $1,500 for the 2015-2016 school year, and $15,000 for the next three years, to expand the ALL IN program and inclusive physical education programs.
‘IT’S A PHILOSOPHY’
“ALL IN is really a philosophy, it’s a mindset, it’s a way of being and a way of existing, and it’s something we are trying to promote more than anything else,” added ALL IN Adviser Stephanie Corona. “The idea is that, ‘You may do something this way, but I do something that way.'”
The group emphasizes the importance of building relationships with people who are different from yourself.
“I want to hangout with a lot of different people with a lot of different backgrounds because that’s what the world is like,” said Albin. “I think ALL IN is a great place to make friends that you might not otherwise meet elsewhere.”
Student Board member Erik Vataker has enjoyed how ALL IN made the transition into high school so easy for him.
“This is one of the places where you can feel like yourself,” he said.
Eric’s mom, Beth Vataker, said “Teenage years are the time where being part of a group is so important,” and that her son loves being a part of ALL IN.
“We didn’t create their leadership skills, we didn’t help them create their leadership skills. They naturally had them,” said ALL IN Adviser Heidi Heinsohn in reference to the members of the Student Board.
“They are going to leave here already thinking the way that they do. They are already inclusive, out-of-the-box thinkers.”
SETTING AN EXAMPLE
Jessica Neu, the ALL IN creator, said the participants at Morristown High are influencing others there.
“Their presence in the building has also affected groups outside of ALL IN that we really haven’t been involved in,” said Neu. “That is the true definition of leadership.”
Girls Who Code, Melanin Minds, and Student Board member Junior Rondon’s Mountain Biking Club are MHS groups that reflect ALL IN’s inclusive philosophy.
ALL IN “is not just for people with special needs,” said Student Board member Andrew Chin. “It’s spread to all different groups at MHS.”
Most importantly, ALL IN has made lasting impacts on its members.
Joyce Reilly Ruiz, mother of Leo Ruiz, who has cerebral palsy, said that ALL IN has allowed Leo to “have leadership roles in advocacy and inclusion of other students with disabilities,” an area of great interest to him.
“Last spring, with the guidance of ALL IN Morris School District staff members, Leo was able to plan and execute a field day with activities designed to be fun for all students,” Joyce Ruiz said.
Physical therapist Barbara Miller and occupational therapist Jeff Crane helped Leo to “construct interactive games where students of differing abilities could enjoy time together and appreciate each others strengths,” she said.
Another parent of an ALL IN member said her son “talks with pride about his friends from ALL IN… He says ‘hi’ to them in the hallways, and waves enthusiastically when he sees them outside of school.
“As a child primarily in an enclosed classroom, this network of friends gives him a deeper sense of belonging at MHS and in the broader Morristown community,” the mother added.
As the school year comes to a close, senior ALL IN Student Board members are preparing to take their message of inclusion to college.
This fall, Amy Albin will be attending the County College of Morris, Andrew Chin is heading for the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, Junior Rondon will study at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Leo Ruiz is bound for Marist College.