GAGE PARK — For 45 minutes every school day, Adan Pedroza receives a healthy dose of reality.
The senior is one of 21 general education students at Eric Solorio Academy High School participating in the school's Adapted PE Leaders Program, which pairs 12th- and 11th-graders like Pedroza with the 17 disabled students in Solorio's Severe and Profound Program.
The first-year physical education class features fun, healthy activities for students, many of whom have developmental disabilities like cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. Others are blind or have spina bifida, and few can communicate effectively.
"It helps me value life a little bit more," said Pedroza, 17, of Gage Park. "When you look at your worst day and you look at what they have to go through every day, it makes you become a better person overall."
Matt Erlenbaugh, Solorio's physical education chair, brought the idea to the Southwest Side school, which will graduate its first class in the spring.
Adapted PE Leaders seems a perfect mold for Erlenbaugh, who comes from a family filled with physical and special education professionals. His late father, Chuck, was a PE teacher at Loyola Academy, while his mother was a special education teacher and administrator. His brothers, J.D. and Dan, are a PE teacher in California and special education teacher in Lake County, respectively. His wife, Laura, is the special education department head at Lincoln-Way West High School.
"Being around both physical education and special education, I really enjoy working with this population of kids," said Erlenbaugh, also Solorio's head wrestling coach and assistant football coach.
Bringing Adapted PE Leaders to Solorio was a cumulative idea. Erlenbaugh's sister-in-law, Abby, an assistant athletic director and PE teacher at Grayslake Central High School, had a similar approach there for the last two years. And at Solorio, where Severe and Profound Programs previously shared gym space but not activities with gen-ed students, members of the current senior class asked Erlenbaugh for more interaction.
"I've had gym here since freshman year, and I noticed the [special education] students weren't social with anyone," said senior Adapted PE Leader Victoria Yacaman, 18 of Gage Park. "Now, it feels as if they're not set aside. They want to participate and be around us.
"I'm just happy that students like me and my classmates, we get to change the school in some way. And the best part is I love coming to class every day and making them smile and laugh," she said.
There were laughs all around during the class at the school's theater, which doubles as a gym. It began with a short dance, which Pedroza said gets the special education students' "blood moving," and progressed to adapted bowling, where disabled participants swung bags hanging from the ceiling into sets of three pins. Then everyone bounced a giant, extremely light, black inflatable ball.
Erlenbaugh said the gen-ed students must have good grades and receive teacher recommendations to qualify for the class, which fulfills Service Learning hours.
A few other CPS schools have Severe and Profound programs, but Erlenbaugh noted Lane Tech College Prep is the only other high school to have a similar class during the school day.
Pedroza served as the "Leader" during the class, creating the itinerary, while the other students had one-on-one time with disabled participants. The able-bodied students are responsible for a different special ed student each class, and occasionally rotate into the "Leader" role.
"We're able to know them more as people and appreciate our chance with them, the things they can do, and the things they can't do," Pedroza said. "Being around their everyday lives in a blessing."