An entire class of third graders at Barron Park Elementary School was honored Wednesday night for being "sometimes friends, sometimes therapists and older brothers and sisters" to a classmate with special needs.
The occasion was the annual "Sweetheart Awards" ceremony, organized by special education parents to thank school staff members and others who have gone the extra mile for their children.
About 9 percent of the 12,500 students in Palo Alto schools are in special education.
A standing-room-only crowd of kids and parents bearing flowers and balloons packed the district's boardroom, applauding as each of dozens of tributes were read.
Bus drivers were honored for making special needs children feel safe and happy about going to school. Three Gunn High School students were singled out by the mother of a special needs boy for taking a genuine interest in her son.
A Palo Alto High School teacher was cited for searching out unusual vocational options for a special needs student, which helped prevent him from giving up on school.
One teacher was praised for "giving her best every day to some of the most challenging students in the school district" and for "showing patience with imperfect parents."
A mother of a special education student said of her child's teacher, "She offers wisdom, not platitudes ... When other professional caregivers check out, she never gives up."
Parents said of another teacher, "She really understands people, including those for whom social skills are not second nature. Knowing she's there to support our son is a tremendous comfort to us."
Several principals were honored by the special education parents, as was departing district Superintendent Kevin Skelly. Lynda Steele, executive director of the Palo Alto nonprofit Abilities United, was also honored.
The Barron Park third graders who were singled out are students of Nick Foote, a teacher who has been at the forefront of efforts to include special education students -- some with severe disabilities -- in mainstream classrooms.
Speaking of her son's classmates, the mother of the child in Foote's class said, "They always give a hand to (our son) and greet him every day ... Once they had a play. They had to run around on the stage like it was raining. They held his hand naturally and ran around with him, even though the teacher never told them to.
"It was meaningful to our family and very touching," the mother said. "I could see their warm hearts. I believe that their warm hearts and beautiful minds could change the world."