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Hacienda La Puente Unified Elementary School Promotes Inclusion through Peer Buddy Program

 Hacienda La Puente Unified Elementary School Promotes Inclusion through Peer Buddy Program
Andrea Torres

CITY OF INDUSTRY Sunset Elementary School special education teacher Maya Caldwell has dedicated her career to fostering a safe, inclusive learning environment through her classroom's Peer Buddy Program, which has been building meaningful relationships among students of all abilities for more than 15 years.

The program pairs sixth graders with students in Caldwell's special needs transitional kindergarten through first-grade class, meeting once a week throughout the school year. This unique initiative fosters inclusivity, enhances social skills and cognitive abilities, and helps students achieve their Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) goals.

"The Peer Buddy Program was thriving before I arrived at Sunset; I just saw the authenticity in the relationships it nurtured and knew it was something I needed to carry on," Caldwell said. "The support of principal Rosette Holmes, staff, students, and families has been instrumental in its success, creating a positive culture we can all be proud of."  

During Sunset Elementary's promotion ceremony on May 21, the Peer Buddy Program's impact was joyfully celebrated as former sixth-grade buddy Santiago Zagoya Dominguez was surprised with the Caldwell Kindness Award, a recognition inspired by Caldwell's dedication to fostering kindness. This recognition, formed by the newly established Ruiz Foundation, was inspired by Caldwell's dedication to cultivating kindness and Dominguez's compassionate and caring nature.

"We came across this program by accident, but by excellent luck," said Victoria Ruiz, a parent of Sunset Elementary School student and founder of the Ruiz Foundation. "The Buddy Program has been proven to eliminate bullying, promote advocacy, and practice kindness. Every Friday for one hour, there are fun games, enriching conversations, and motivation. For the time they are together, the phenomenon of equality takes place.”

During their time together, the buddies engage in various activities, including science, technology, engineering, and math lessons, sensory and comprehension games, and field trips. In addition to their class time, the buddies also sit next to each other at recess and lunch. 

“My older brother was in the program, and he always talked about how much he loved hanging out with his buddy, so I knew I wanted to be a part of this,” Dominguez said. “My buddy and I are friends; before promoting, I drew him a bird picture and wrote ‘blessings to you and your family’ on it because I know how much he loves birds. He also came to my birthday party and got to play with me and all my classmates.”

Hacienda La Puente Unified announced its Reconfiguration Plan earlier in the 2023-24 school year to optimize enrollment across all sites and grades, ensuring equitable instructional and enrichment programs Districtwide starting this August. Caldwell is expected to transfer to Nelson Elementary School, where her Peer Buddy Program and expertise will help bolster the school's existing Buddy Program.

“I am so excited to welcome Maya Caldwell, the instructional aides, and the students to Nelson next year,” Nelson Elementary School principal Dr. Marci Chavez said. “Sunset Elementary’s theme of inclusion, resiliency, and kindness intertwines seamlessly with the positive school culture at Nelson. I look forward to joining our schools to continue fostering academic and social-emotional success for all our students.”

Reconfiguring schools across the District, including Sunset and Nelson elementary schools, have begun welcoming students and staff to their new sites by hosting a series of meet-and-greets and orientations. Furthermore, engagement activities were also implemented as part of the Transition Leadership Collaborative (TLC) initiative, designed to promote positive connections with students, parents, staff, and teachers. Chavez, Caldwell, and other Sunset employees are preparing for the first day of the 2024-25 school year and the highly anticipated new Peer Buddy Program on Wednesday, August 7.

“On behalf of the entire Board of Education and myself, I want to express our deep gratitude to the Ruiz family, Maya Caldwell, and the entire Sunset community, " Superintendent Dr. Alfonso Jiménez said. "Your efforts in empowering the abilities of all students and fostering a culture of acceptance across our District are truly inspiring. We are excited to witness the strength and resiliency of both these school communities as they unite to continue the Peer Buddy Program, the Caldwell Award, and further promote awareness and acceptance in our entire District community.”




HLPUSD_BUDDYPROGRAM1: From left to right: Sunset Elementary School teacher Maya Caldwell, parent Victoria Ruiz, promoting student Santiago Zagoya Dominguez, and principal Rosette Holmes celebrate the first-ever Caldwell Kindness Award during a promotion ceremony on May 21.

HLPUSD_BUDDYPROGRAM2: Sunset Elementary School promoting student Santiago Zagoya Dominguez and family celebrate his numerous achievements during a promotion ceremony on May 21.

HLUPSD_BUDDYPROGRAM3: Victoria Ruiz, a Sunset Elementary School parent and founder of the Ruiz Foundation, announces Santiago Zagoya Dominguez as the first-ever Caldwell Kindness Award recipient for the 2023-24 school year, during a celebration on May 21.

HLPUSD_BUDDYPROGRAM4: Victoria Ruiz and incoming Sparks Middle School seventh-grader Santiago Zagoya Dominguez share a warm embrace following his acceptance of the Caldwell Kindness Award on May 21.