CRESTVIEW — It takes a special kind of student to be a Davidson Middle School buddy. In fact, school officials said, it takes the "crême-de-la-crême," or cream of the crop.

CRESTVIEW — It takes a special kind of student to be a Davidson Middle School buddy. In fact, school officials said, it takes the "crême-de-la-crême," or cream of the crop.

The program, in its 10th year, links specially selected eighth-graders —  the buddies — with students in the school's exceptional student education program.

"They are peer mentors," program director and E.S.E. teacher Carol Cassity said.

As she spoke, eighth-grader Jayce Longman was helping special needs students Tyler Wadsworth and Adrian Taylor complete a calendar project.

Buddy Kiayana Roberts had just returned to the classroom from escorting Anna Klemkosky, one of Tyler and Adrian's classmates, to the water fountain.

"It is an eye-opening experience for anybody who hasn't worked with these kids," Kiayana said. "It has been really rewarding."

"The buddies learn different ways of dealing with different people," E.S.E. teacher Barbara Cook said.

'Not a fluff class'

The program began a decade ago when guidance counselor Rhonda Brown asked an eighth-grader to mentor a student excused from physical education class.

When that school year ended and teachers saw how well the special needs student responded to his peer buddy, Cassity said she asked Brown, "How can we keep this going?"

The buddy program is now an academic class, Cassity said. Students have to apply, write an essay, and get two faculty recommendations and written permission from their parents to take the class.

During the school year, buddies maintain a performance log tracking their and their students' progress, describing projects and initiatives, and they must take an end-of-course exam.

"It's not a fluff class," Cassity said.

For the 2013-14 academic year, more than 90 rising eighth-graders, almost a third of the class, have applied for about 40 buddy openings.

It's OK to be friends

Because buddies are generally student leaders, including athletic standouts, cheerleaders, band members and student government representatives, Davidson doesn’t experience E.S.E. students being ridiculed by other students, Cassity said.

If a new student says something unkind to a special needs student, "they're immediately corrected," buddy Dylan Buck said.

"We tell them, 'OK, you need to chill out,'" Kiayana said. "'You need to correct yourself.'"

"If these kids (the buddies) say it's OK to be friends with our (E.S.E.) kids, that's why there's no ostracizing here," Cassity said. "We are an integral part of the school setting."

Buddies and their special needs student pals form long-lasting friendships, the buddies said.

"Every single day of my life I get a high-five from one of the kids," buddy Jordan Richardson said. "Even if I'm just in the store and one of them sees me, they come up and talk to me."

Lifetime of helping

Buddies free up E.S.E. teachers to provide extra attention to students needing it, Cassity said. By taking E.S.E. students around the school, such as to the library or drinking fountains, buddies remove the stigma of being "escorted by an adult," Cassity said.

With the success of Davidson's program, graduating buddies hope Crestview High School will form a similar program. Cassity said the high school leadership class has discussed doing so.

"I'd do it every year in high school if I could," Jordan said.

The experience has encouraged several of the buddies to continue in the field. Steven DelPozo, a Davidson graduate and former buddy, is an E.S.E. teacher at Northwood Elementary School.

"My brother, Jacob, is studying special education at college," Jayce said. "It's an honor to be a buddy."

Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.