Breaking Boundaries: Brandi Benson’s Inclusive Yearbook Program
Written by Danielle Finch
In Lincoln Southwest High School in Lincoln, Nebraska, Brandi Benson, the dedicated yearbook adviser, is breaking new ground with an inclusive yearbook program that transcends traditional boundaries and fosters unity among students with and without disabilities.
A Multi-faceted Adviser
Brandi Benson, in her 11th year as an adviser at Lincoln Southwest High School, wears multiple hats with pride. She not only advises the yearbook but also oversees the website, photojournalism program and newspaper. Her commitment extends beyond journalism as the head coach for Unified Bowling and Unified Track, sponsor of Unified Council and Unified Club and is the adviser of the recently introduced Unified Yearbook.
The Yearbook Staff
Because of the block schedule, Lincoln Southwest’s yearbook program witnesses a unique turnover of staff each semester. Benson’s team ranges anywhere from seven to 16 members who are tasked with covering the school’s 2,100-student population. Despite the challenges, the team consistently delivers a yearbook with over 280 pages.
“One of the things that I’ve always loved about journalism classes is that they allow students the freedom to work on the things they like and the things that they’re good at. Our staff in both traditional and inclusive yearbook is very small, so everybody wears all of the hats. But I’m also a very firm believer, whether it’s general or special education, that anybody can do anything,” Benson said.
This year, Benson’s team is particularly young, showcasing the program’s ability to adapt and thrive with diverse groups of students. The traditional yearbook and the inclusive yearbook collaborate seamlessly, demonstrating the power of unity in journalism.
Inclusive Yearbook: Bridging Gaps
Introduced in 2022, the inclusive yearbook initiative takes a groundbreaking approach to inclusion. In collaboration with the school’s block schedule, Benson established an inclusive yearbook program that runs concurrently with the traditional one. The inclusive yearbook, a semester-long project, involves students with and without disabilities working side by side.
Students in the inclusive yearbook program, referred to as journalists and assistants, contribute to the pages alongside their peers in the traditional yearbook. The journalists (students in special education), collaborate with their assistants (general education students), to capture the essence of their school experience.
One testimonial from one of her unified journalists said, “This yearbook can tell people more about Unified and how it can make an impact, how it is possible to do the same things as people who might not have a challenge that keeps them from doing certain activities they want to do. Even though Unified Yearbook is modified, we are still able to learn how to make a yearbook, and we are able to get the same experiences overall. I really enjoyed Unified Yearbook.”
Training and Collaboration
Benson emphasizes the adaptability of the program, demonstrating her belief that anyone can do anything with the right support. Inclusive yearbook students receive the same opportunities as their peers. They check out cameras, go on photo shoots and contribute to the creative process, with assistants offering guidance where needed.
The collaboration extends to training sessions, where both groups learn together. Traditional yearbook students take the lead, acting as mentors to their inclusive yearbook counterparts. This approach not only instills a sense of ownership in experienced students but also boosts the confidence of beginners.
Success and Recognition
The success of Lincoln Southwest’s inclusive yearbook program goes beyond the pages of the book. Benson reflects on the overwhelmingly positive response from the student body, staff and community.
“We are very fortunate at Lincoln Southwest. I think we do it better than anyone. We have a student body, a staff and just a community that truly rallies around the idea of inclusion, bridging gaps and making this an environment that welcomes everybody regardless of ability.” Benson said.
One student expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be part of the yearbook, noting the inclusive yearbook reduced stress and provided a platform to share their unique perspective.
Words of Advice
When asked for tips for advisers considering a similar initiative, Benson stressed the importance of communication. Regardless of a school’s size or available resources, she believes creating opportunities for students with disabilities is achievable. Benson suggests collaborating with life skills teachers and special education coordinators to identify students who may be interested in participating.
“I think the big key is communicating with the students, families and your administration or anybody you need to talk to. But I don’t think that it is a far fetched idea or off the wall to say, ‘Hey, this student wants an opportunity. I wonder if I can find a good peer mentor who could help them,’” Benson said.
Pioneering the Path to Inclusivity
As Brandi Benson continues to lead the charge for inclusivity in yearbook creation, Lincoln Southwest High School stands as a beacon of inspiration. The program demonstrates that through innovative thinking, collaboration and trust in students’ abilities, schools can break down barriers and create a more unified and inclusive educational experience. Benson’s inclusive yearbook initiative isn’t just about capturing moments; it’s about creating their own moments and ensuring every student’s voice is heard and celebrated.
“I think we need to trust our students more and trust their abilities. no matter what education they’re in–in special or general education–our students are brilliant, and our students are capable,” Benson said.
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