The lunchtime crowd in Manhattan Beach is a friendly group. Xan Saks sees to that. The 18-year-old Mira Costa High School senior offers...

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MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — The lunchtime crowd in Manhattan Beach is a friendly group. Xan Saks sees to that.

The 18-year-old Mira Costa High School senior offers a slice of pizza to classmate Jacob Dominguez, who is laughing as he talks about a planned trip to Disneyland. A few steps away sophomore Ben McMillan punctuates a discussion about soccer with some spirited high-fives. In the back of the room junior Tommy Sedgwick is surrounded by girls chattering about the green hair-dye job he received a day earlier at a community fair.

Dominguez, McMillan and Sedgwick are disabled. They’re teenagers who could easily be lost in the crowd at some high schools.

But not at Mira Costa. Not since the year-old Friendship Circle Club started proving that members of the 2,300-member student body have more in common than anyone thought.

The club, organized and operated by students, connects the school’s nearly two dozen “special needs” teens with the general student body in a way that no formal school-district policy or legal-system edict is likely to ever pull off.

In the year since Saks informally started the campus club with a handful of friends, it has drawn those with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and a variety of other disabilities into mainstream campus life. In the process, it’s become the school’s largest club. Now its concept could be spreading as other school systems take notice.

For many high-school students, the most important element in life is one’s social status. The 100-member teen club has ratcheted the social system up a notch.

“We’re bringing together people from different cliques across the school,” Saks said. “We’re creating a whole new clique that’s cool to be involved in. We’re totally turning things around.”

Expanding social circle

Alexander Saks, who is quick to explain that his nickname is a spinoff of the “Xander Man” sobriquet his father bestowed on him when he was a preschooler, started the club after participating in a program at a Redondo Beach community center called the South Bay Friendship Circle.

It primarily involved young children, Saks said, although the mother of one disabled boy invited him to her son’s 17th birthday party.

“I went, and except for members of his family, I was the only other person there,” Saks said.

“When it was time to leave a few hours later, I said goodbye and the mother came out with tears in her eyes to thank me for coming. She said this was the first time her son had ever had a friend over.”

Mira Costa’s club started with Saks and a handful of friends. Math teacher Rocky Wilson signed on to be faculty adviser.

For 18 of his 30 years in the classroom, Wilson has worked at Mira Costa. He was there when youngsters with disabilities were first incorporated into the general student body. He said the classroom part of that integration generally worked well.

“The school’s focus is on the curriculum. But we’ve not been so successful at lunch and after school,” Wilson said of the inclusion of disabled youngsters in activities.

“They’d eat lunch alone, or with each other. They didn’t feel they had the opportunity to go to the dance or the football game. Some of them lacked communication skills. They lacked that social circle that other kids have. Many of those kids led isolated lives.”

School-originated buddy programs aimed at pulling special-education students into the campus social structure were less than successful, Wilson said.

“Some of them limped along for a few years. But they didn’t get much support — probably because they were run by adults, to be honest.”

“Now he has friends”

The Friendship Circle Club has evolved as it has grown.

Some club members have visited each other at home. They get together for after-school events such as a planned upcoming barbecue at a student’s house and the proposed Disneyland outing. At the Manhattan Beach Hometown Fair, the disabled worked side by side with the able-bodied selling water at a booth.

Youngsters grinned when one special-ed student’s mother came to the fair to pick him up. He pleaded to work a little longer in the booth, explaining, “Mom, I want to stay with my friends!”

Elisa Nicholas, whose son came away from the fair with green hair, said the club had helped turn his life around. Tommy Sedgwick has cerebral palsy.

“When he first got to high school, he would basically eat lunch alone, with his aide. Now he has friends. When I took him to school this year, kids were walking up and saying, ‘Hi, Tom!’,” said Nicholas, a pediatrician from Hermosa Beach.

“It brings tears to your eyes — I’m going to cry right now talking about it. When they’re younger, it’s much easier for kids to fit in. As he got older, it got harder. Middle school and high school is a tough time for kids socially. Now he has friends.”

Able-bodied youngsters also are moved by the experience. Fifteen-year-old Celia Hubbard was delighted when a disabled student in the club asked for her instant-message address.

“We have each other’s screen names, and we’re talking by IM now,” Hubbard said. “Some of these kids I’ve known since elementary school, and I wanted to spend more time with them. Others I’ve met for the first time. I’ve made a lot of friends in this group,” Hubbard said.

Senior Reed Eisenhauer, 17, said others on the Mira Costa campus take note when club members walk across campus and greet special-ed youngsters by name and with high-fives.

“You’re a little nervous at first, but once you meet them it’s a lot of fun. You find out they’re people just like you. When they become comfortable with you, it’s like you’re regular friends,” Eisenhauer said.

Those who work closely with special-education students at Mira Costa say the effect on those teens has been dramatic.

“They’re learning how to act in different social settings. It’s putting them in social situations they’ve never been in before,” said Joe Lederer, a special-needs teacher who has spent a decade at the campus.

Manhattan Beach Unified School District administrators are equally delighted. They wish Saks and his friends had been around seven years ago.

That’s when the parents of one Mira Costa special-education student filed a lawsuit alleging the school had failed to provide proper language instruction and socialization interventions for their autistic son. The school district and the state agreed last year to pay $6.7 million to settle.

“It’s wonderful to see something initiated by students, for students, capture people’s attention,” said Beverly Rohrer, interim superintendent of the Manhattan Beach school system.

Last month Rohrer invited Saks to a regional school-superintendents meeting to discuss his club. Several of the 11 school chiefs at the meeting expressed interest in introducing the club to their campuses. Saks is now working with schools in Redondo Beach and on the Palos Verdes peninsula, Rohrer said.

For now, Mira Costa’s teens are the beneficiaries.

The idea of friendship has come full circle.