Inclusion is a mission for teacher, coach
BHS’ Riggs melds mainstream, special education
by John Gessner
When Mark Riggs became an assistant football coach at Burnsville High School in 1990, head coach Dick Hanson put him in charge of the team managers.
“Pretty soon,” Riggs recalled, “I think we were up to six or seven special ed kids who were involved in it by the end of the season.”
As a teacher, Riggs has years of experience in both mainstream and special education. As a teacher, coach and student council advisor, he’s worked to lower barriers between the two.
His efforts have earned Riggs the first Inclusion Award in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191. The award, which he received last month, is the brainchild of the district’s Special Education Advisory Committee.
“Of course, we always want our kids who have special needs to be included with the regular ed kids,” said committee member Abbie Wells-Herzog of Burnsville, who has an autistic daughter at Metcalf Junior High and a gifted and talented daughter at Eagle Ridge Junior High.
“Kids being kids, sometimes if kids are different or act different or look different, it can be kind of scary. When you see a teacher or another school person making that real effort to encourage the kids to be with their peers, their regular ed peers, I think that’s fabulous. So we want to encourage that.”
Riggs, perhaps best known for his recent four-year stint as Burnsville’s head football coach (he remains an assistant), is also a 1983 graduate of the school.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education and health at Gustavus Adolphus College, where he volunteered to teach swimming to special-needs adults at the state hospital in St. Peter, Minn.
“That was one of my first opportunities working with people with special needs,” said Riggs, one of 10 nominees for the Inclusion Award. “You see the successes they have and how much they really appreciate when somebody else comes and works with them. It gives them freedoms and opportunities they normally wouldn’t have.”
After college Riggs taught and coached football, wrestling and track in Belle Plaine. He continued coaching in all three sports after coming to Burnsville, where he taught adapted physical education.
Riggs, who has a master’s degree in specific learning disabilities, moved to Eagle Ridge Junior High to teach mainstream phy ed and health when the school opened in 1995.
He returned to BHS in 1999 to teach mainstream phy ed and health. This year, he said, budget cuts landed him back in special education, where he teaches math skills and works with students in the special education resource room.
Regardless of classroom assignment, Riggs has looked for ways to integrate mainstream and special education.
In 1991 he launched a District 191 special education track meet. His track team members ran the meet. He continued to recruit special education students as managers for the teams he coached.
When he was teaching mainstream phy ed at BHS, special education teachers often requested that their students be placed in his classes.
After becoming student council advisor in 1999, Riggs took his inclusion campaign schoolwide.
“I’ve been very proactive about making sure there are students with special needs on the student council,” Riggs said. He’ll nudge students into applying for the 45-member council, which Riggs said now has at least three special-needs members.
He’s opened up the 30-person Homecoming Court by reserving eight spots for staff-nominated members. The rest are chosen by a student body vote.
And Riggs has employed student council members to draw special ed students into the fabric of school life.
“Mr. Riggs has student council members enter classrooms and talk about upcoming events, and opportunities on how to become more involved in the school community,” wrote special education social worker T.J. Hewett, who nominated Riggs for the Inclusion Award.
“Mr. Riggs has found many ways to include all students,” which is evident at Homecoming Week and Snow Week activities, Hewett wrote.
Now that he’s teaching special education, Riggs has recruited student council members to offer peer tutoring in the resource room.
“Both parties are benefitting,” he said. “The mindset is getting kids who don’t normally work with special-needs kids, and then you find out how rewarding it is and become much more accepting, too.”
John Gessner is at firstname.lastname@example.org.