MINNEAPOLIS — Filtering into a final-period physical education class at Wayzata High School in Plymouth, Minn., students put on heart-rate monitors, then mingle quietly until class begins and each finds a partner.
The day's focus is tennis — temporary nets are strung up across the gym floor — but first things first. Partners play catch, then deliver the ball on one bounce. Simple, progressive steps follow. Most of the class period is over before physical education instructor Mike Doyle breaks out modified rackets, and they barely get used.
To the participants and their families, the seemingly uneventful hour — with no sweat involved — marked another rewarding afternoon in what has become one of the school's most sought-after classes.
It's called unified physical education, and it pairs students with special needs with those of the general population. By all accounts, it's been wildly successful. Demand for the class has created a waiting list and an after-school club. As many as 50 other high schools in Minnesota have either started or are in the process of starting a similar class.
"I was part of the first group to take the class last year and after I took it, I was like, 'This is so cool,' " said junior Mimi Schrader, a starting point guard for the Wayzata girls' basketball team.
Doyle came up with the idea when he was teaching basketball to a group of students with special needs.
"I remember thinking, 'Why not get the basketball players to teach basketball?'" Doyle recalled. "I went to a physical education teachers convention and Special Olympics did a presentation on unifying athletes with kids with special needs. It was the same thing I wanted to do."
After he put in long hours developing a curriculum, the class was added to the Wayzata course catalog last year.
"The fear was creating a class that no one wanted to take," Doyle said.
He needn't have worried. As the year went on, the class grew in popularity, primarily with students from the school's general population. Now, it is in such high demand that it fills up quickly. Originally intended to have 15 general education students per 10 special education students, the class exceeds that by a few kids each session.
"It was a surprise, yes, and it was definitely fun to see," Doyle said. "It's bridging the gap between the special education and the general student populations campuswide."
While the class itself is the focus, its influence is obvious. Kids with special needs are sprinkled in with the general education students, mainstreamed in ways they never had been before.
"You can tell a lot about a school by looking at its lunchroom," Schrader said. "Before the class, you'd see the special needs kids sitting off at their own table, empty chairs around them. Now, they're all over the place, chatting with their new friends. And that's just one small part of it."
Matthew St. John is a senior who has always been one of the more socially outgoing special needs students. He plays adapted sports and hands out water for the boys' basketball team. The addition of the unified PE class has been a vital part of Matthew becoming just a typical student, say his parents, Kevin and Nicole St. John.
"Kids with special needs are very aware of their surroundings. They want to be included. They want to be just like everyone else," Kevin St. John said.
Said Nicole: "His activities were always adapted athletics, but it wasn't until this unified PE class that some of the general ed kids have come to his games to cheer him on."
Added Kevin: "Now, he can't go from one classroom to another without 12 people saying hi to him."
That enthusiastic response of the general student body has made the unified PE class an unexpected success.
Senior Markus Braun is a member of the Wayzata boys' cross-country team that won the Class 2A team championship last fall. Braun has a great uncle with cerebral palsy and knows the importance of giving to people with special needs, which is why he took unified PE. He never expected how much he would get in return.
"I wanted to give back, but I'm getting a lot back, too," he said. "You learn so much. You hear people in the halls say things about them and you think, 'Why not be friends with them?' They have social skills. They talk about the same things we all talk about."
Maggie Allen is a junior with special needs at Wayzata, and her mom, Penny, credits the class for giving her daughter a chance to experience the everyday lifestyle of a high school student.
"It's teaching my daughter independence that I never thought she'd have," Allen said. "She wants to be like her friends in the class. She'll get a text and say, 'Hey, Mom, so-and-so's picking me up and we're going to a movie.' I'm like 'You are? Oh, OK.' As a parent, this is not something I thought my child would ever see. It is amazing."
Word of the class has spread quickly. Only Wayzata and Proctor, near Duluth, offered unified PE in 2016-17, but that number is expected to grow to by nearly 50 across Minnesota next year.
Edina is one school that added unified PE this year. Mellanie Pusateri is a co-instructor, alongside Tracy Bergo, and is effusive about what the class accomplishes.
"It's been much better received than I expected," she said. "The response from the student population has been amazing. It breaks down barriers. I've seen (special needs and general education) kids in the hall exchanging phone numbers. That never would have happened before."
With student demand exceeding available class sessions, Schrader and a few others formed Club US (Unified Students). The club organizes social get-togethers, including a snow-tubing excursion that is in the works. As of now, it has nearly 160 students, 130 of them from the general student body.
On Jan. 12 members put on choreographed dance routine at halftime of the girls' basketball game. Students performed to "All In This Together" from the movie "High School Musical" and received a standing ovation.
A plan is in place to provide fan buses to a couple of adapted floor hockey games.
"I don't know if we've ever had a fan bus go to an adapted sport," Doyle said. "That's been the most rewarding thing for me: how happy the parents of the special needs kids are that their sons and daughters are finally getting included in things like dances and going to football games and all of these daily things most kids take for granted."
Schrader committed last week to play basketball at the U.S. Naval Academy. Her team is currently undefeated and ranked No. 2 in Class 4A. But it's the unified PE class and Club US that is her passion.
"I don't think anyone will care 20 years from now how many points I scored against Hopkins," Schrader said. "This is the coolest thing I will leave at this school. I'm excited to see, when I come back, where this is and how it's grown.