Luis Padilla and Nikki Durante have much in common. Both are students at Woodstock North High School. Both take part in school activities. Both plan to attend college in Wisconsin.

So when Nikki asked Luis to the school’s homecoming dance last month, he gladly accepted. That’s a story that will repeat itself thousands of times this fall in high schools across the country. But it’s their differences — Luis is in mainstream classes, while Nikki, who has Down syndrome, is a special education student — that make their friendship special.

“We like each other because he’s so independent,” said Nikki, a junior from Woodstock.

The pair got to know each other in the school’s dance class, where Nikki is a student and Luis, a senior from Wonder Lake, runs the sound system. They started eating lunch together, too, after agreeing to go to homecoming. At the dance Sept. 30, Luis was named homecoming king — a title he wasn’t expecting because most of his friends had forgotten to vote.

“It was so much more fun than last year,” Luis said. “… Despite the homecoming king thing, it was really enjoyable to go with someone who enjoyed it as much as I did.”

“We were dancing like crazy,” Nikki added.

Diane Durante, Nikki’s mother, said homecoming is just one example of how well teachers and students have integrated students with special needs into the wider school community.

“Since we came to Woodstock North, it’s been like a whole different world,” Diane Durante said. “Even in talking to teachers, I think with this generation, the teenagers are much more open-hearted and accepting than I have ever seen before, and it’s very comforting.”

After graduating from high school next year, Nikki, who loves to cook and bake, plans to attend McHenry County College before taking off for Shepherd’s College, where she wants to study culinary arts. The three-year post-secondary school in Union Grove, Wis., offers educational programs for students with special needs.

Luis, an honors student with a long resumé of extracurriculars, will graduate this spring. He plans to attend the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where he’s considering majoring in biology.

In the meantime, while they’re still classmates, the pair hope people can take a little inspiration from their friendship.

“I had a lot of people who said, ‘Oh, you’re such a nice guy,’ but I didn’t do it for praise or to be nice,” Luis said. “I just wish everyone could see that this is how it should be.”

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