Working with special-needs students is part of David Piehler’s job description. It’s also a big piece of his heart.
“I’ve fallen into this,” the ever-modest Highland Park High School basketball coach said of his “Partners P.E.” class — which is to say it was in place before he came to HPISD seven years ago. But now, “it would be really hard to give this up, to not have it as a daily part of my life.”
Piehler’s time with special-needs teens and young adults isn’t limited to the variety of sports and exercises they practice every day in P.E.; he also arranges for hardworking students to manage the basketball team, uses his basketball players as mentors, and brings a crowd of cheering fans with him to Special Olympics events.
Parents have noticed. And because of his rapport with their children, the district’s Special Education Parents Advis-ory Committee has named Piehler the recipient of its inaugural Spotlight Award.
“People just can’t speak highly enough of him,” said committee member Barbara Lena, who presented the award to a tearful Piehler at last Tuesday’s school board meeting. “He’s a great high school coach as it is, but for him to be so open, so inclusive to kids with special needs [means he] goes above and beyond. He has made these kids feel like they have a place in the community.”
The coach said he’s overwhelmed, grateful, and “a little undeserving” of the honor, considering HPISD has many other dedicated teachers and aides.
That, and “I think I get a lot more out of [Partners P.E.] than they do from me,” he said. “We all have some sort of special needs, if you know what I mean. The love and acceptance I feel from them really is the highlight of my day.”
He’s not the only one having fun.
“He’s a good coach,” said freshman Chris Wheeler, who loves attending Piehler’s class. “He likes to laugh a lot with the guys.”
For Chris, who has Down syndrome, being active is “the thing he loves the most — well, aside from girls this year,” his mother, Nancy, said with a chuckle.
As for Piehler, she said, “he has the kind of personality that really enjoys [Chris and his classmates], and doesn’t talk down to them. He just has fun with them. And they love it.”
When Jane Syrquin’s son became manager of the basketball team, she said in a prepared statement, “Coach Piehler’s kind and respectful treatment of Sam carried over to his players. Sam is treated as an honored and valued member of the team.”