A program created to encourage inclusion for students will have two free performances at the high school.

STAFF PHOTO: OLIVIA SINGER - John Anderberg, the program director, assists students during rehearsal in the auditorium after school.Thirty three percent of students at Forest Grove High School are said to have been victims of cyberbullying at some point in their lives, said John Anderberg, an instructional assistant in the high school's special education program. Nationally, one in three students have reported being bullied, he said.

"This issue is one of the biggest faced by today's students, and Forest Grove students will not let it go unnoticed," Anderberg said.

Eight years ago, the school's special education teacher, Jill Hertel, suggested some of her students partner with the theater program to do a play commissioned by the Special Olympics, Anderberg said. Hertel runs the school's Unified Program, which provides all students the opportunity to participate in sports and various high school programs they might not otherwise participate in.

The theater teacher at the time agreed to the idea, and the performance consisted of about half of the cast from the special education department, Anderberg said.

The drama teacher was let go due to budget restraints a year later, but Anderberg, who was an advocate for the idea from the start and worked in the technical department on the play, suggested continuing the idea by making the partnership an after-school program.

This year's performance will be the seventh show put on by the high school's Unified Performers program, a play titled "Out of the Darkness," written by Anderberg and Kelsie Johnson, an instructional assistant at Neil Armstrong Middle School. And as far as Anderberg knows, the program is the only one of its kind.

Because the program was developed to provide students from all walks of life an opportunity to be involved without feeling intimidated or excluded, the plays always represent important themes from year to year, Anderberg said.

"It developed out of a class composed of students with and without disabilities performing a show designed to educate the community about discrimination against students with special needs," he said.

Past plays have demonstrated themes of inclusion, student homelessness and bullying, and this year's performance focuses specifically on cyberbullying to shed light on an extremely prevalent and detrimental topic in today's world, Anderberg said.STAFF PHOTO: OLIVIA SINGER - Every student who wants to join the program gets a part in the play whether it's acting or technical.

Anderberg, the play's director and co-writer, said any and every student can participate in the play.

"We have students from our theater department, we have students who haven't done theater before and just wanted to be a part of this, we have our students with special needs," he said.

"Our audition is you walk in the door and you sign up, and you're either an actor or a technician. We don't turn anybody away."

Forest Grove senior Waad Al Hares is on an exchange program for the school year from Libya and is acting in the play.

"In my country, we didn't have any attention towards (special education students). People looked at them like they were a burden on society, and obviously, I didn't like that," she said. "When I got here, I was really surprised at how people were treating them really nicely and trying to involve them and trying to make them feel like we are all equal."

Hares hopes to take ideas from the program back to her country when she returns in two months to change the perception of special education students, she said.

"It's really important to show that even though we are different, it doesn't mean that they can't do the other activities other teenagers are doing," Hares said.

Annica Gritton, who is also a senior at Forest Grove High, has been involved in Special Olympics programs since she was very young, having a brother with autism, she said. She wanted to join theater at the high school, but when she found out a program existed combining theater and Special Olympics, she joined the Unified Program right away, she said.

"It's a great opportunity for students of all abiliites to be able to come into a pretty much pressureless play where it doesn't matter what your abilities are, the lines will be able to work toward who you are as a person," Gritton said.

Josie Myers, a special education student, has been a part of the program all four years, she said.

"What makes it so special for me is learning how to memorize and learning to work as a team," she said. "My favorite part is doing the lines and getting out of my comfort zone."

There will be two performances at the school's Ellen Stephens Auditorium, located at 1401 Nichols Lane in Forest Grove. One is on Thursday, April 19, and another will be Friday, April 20, both at 7:30 p.m.

The performers will also travel to Neil Armstrong Middle School later this month to do a show for the younger students.

A special education teacher at Neil Armstrong, Austin Prather, who died on March 9 of this year, worked closely with Anderberg for several years and was an advocate both for the Unified Performers program and for getting the performers over to his school to spread important messages of inclusion, Anderberg said.

"This year, we are dedicating the show to him," Anderberg said of Prather. "He was very special and very passionate about this population and what this type of production can do and inclusion in general."

There are several parts written into the script dedicated to Prather, Anderberg said.

The play is open and free to the public, though non-perishable food donations are encouraged for the school's "Backpack Project," which provides low-income and homeless students food to take home on the weekends.

By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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