You probably know Special Olympics for the group’s efforts in highlighting individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities in sports and other training efforts. Today, more than 5.5 million people participate in 108,000 Special Olympics games in 170 countries—and student leaders and their advisers in the United States have played a significant role in that growth through the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools (UCS) program. The program strives to provide inclusion for students with special needs through sports programs and activities, a leadership program for students, and participation in the effort by the entire school (see sidebar below).

While Special Olympics still supports schools that put on the familiar one-time track and field activity or basketball game, it now promotes a host of other sports and teams that compete against each other in Unified Sports. It has also developed a Young Athletes program for children ages 2–7. And since 2008, the Special Olympics has sought more involvement in its UCS program.

“Our mission is for schools to provide year-round sports, but also give individuals with intellectual disabilities continuing opportunities to develop friendships with other students, other Special Olympics athletes, and throughout the community,” says Theresa Fitzpatrick, manager of strategic communications and global youth engagement for Special Olympics. “Champion Schools help create those connections for the next generation. Our goal is simple: a more inclusive world where everyone can play, learn, and live together.”

True Collaboration

At Grassfield High School in Chesapeake, VA, Activities Director Alicia White helped found the inclusive United Students Club (US Club) at the school with the intention of developing activities and projects that involve collaboration between students with special needs and the rest of the students in the school—particularly student leaders. The club was created by the student council but is open to all students and has more than 100 members.

“Students learn to see past the disability and see the person,” White says. “They develop tolerance and respect for differences among all students, which allows them to better serve our entire school community.”

The group members have inclusive “lawn chair lunches” in the courtyard, attend events together and hold dances, including a masquerade ball (the group’s biggest event), which is planned entirely by students collaborating with various segments of the school. The students learn dances during physical education classes and work on posters in art classes. Then, just prior to the event, they work together on costumes and makeup. All students in the school are encouraged to attend the event.

Unified Champions and More

The Mountain Range High School Mustangs in the school’s Project Unify program pose for a team photo.

Groups such as Grassfield’s US Club are examples of the way Special Olympics has grown over the last decade, Fitzpatrick says.

At Green Valley High School in Henderson, NV, student council adviser Scott Otter teamed up with staff members from the individualized (ID) programs department for a unified soccer game that featured ID students playing against a team from another school.

“When we were approached to help plan and attend the game, we immediately saw this as an opportunity to support and represent a department in our school that doesn’t always receive the same amount of recognition as others,” he says.

Members of his leadership group, along with other students, helped the participants practice, and on the day of the game they helped them perform while the school band played and the scoreboard presented a video supporting the athletes. Hundreds of students filled the stands and cheered them on.

“We treated this event with as much school spirit and Gator pride as any other Green Valley High School sporting event,” he adds. “I don’t remember what team ended up winning, but I definitely remember how all the players were treated with respect and had a great time.” Otter says he believes the school will make the event an annual tradition.

Ian Simpson, adviser for student government at Mountain Range High School in Westminster, CO, says the school will host its seventh Unified Sports event this year as part of the schoolwide Project Unify program.

“Project Unify is important because it allows all students to feel welcome and fully included in the school community. It’s an opportunity for community members to see that although all students have different challenges, we are always able to come together as a group to which everyone knows they belong,” Simpson says. “It allows for all types of students to interact with each other and with people who may be different than them.”

Axel Martinez, who graduated from Mountain Range High in 2018, participated in the games as a student council member. “The Project Unify experience made us all reach an unspoken agreement to leave our attitudes about each other at the door,” he says. “It was a great experience to see everyone focused on the players, and it changed our attitudes and changed the school.”

He notes that those in attendance form a path for the participating students to run through at the beginning of the games. “Athletes have shared that it is one of their favorite parts of the event because they get to see their classmates cheering for them.”

In March 2020, a mix of students in special needs programs and other student athletes will compete in games with four other area schools that draw large crowds, led by “Unified” cheerleaders and with participation from various sectors of the school. District and community leaders attend, and the games are covered widely by area media.

“Project Unify is always one of the biggest events at the school. Sports teams, faculty members, and community members come together to watch the games and they fill the gym with noise and excitement,” Simpson says.

Beyond the Participants

Simpson, Otter, and White all note that the programs are important for all the participating students, as they gain an understanding of each other and learn about collaboration across boundaries within the entire school community.

Fitzpatrick says that in a survey of Champion School participants, more than 65 percent reported that they learned about working with and helping others and about how to be more patient. Nearly 60 percent found that they have things in common with students with different abilities and a similar number said they discovered how they should stand up for someone. Most participants reported developing stronger social-emotional learning skills, which educators now see as critical; it’s a trait that they seek to develop in students.

Fitzpatrick notes that a broader goal of changing school culture has become a priority for Special Olympics, and the survey results suggest it is making a mark.

“Ninety-four percent of teacher liaisons at our schools felt that the UCS program created a more socially inclusive school environment,” she says. “They felt strongly that the program increased opportunities for all students to work together, raised awareness about students with intellectual disabilities, increased their participation in school activities, and reduced bullying, teasing, and offensive language.”

Caroline Leckie, a senior at Grassfield High and one of the founders of the club, found similar benefits. “It wasn’t just about the accommodations; it was about serving those who were underserved. A community was provided for anyone to feel heard, wanted, and valued. Inclusion is not a box to be checked off a to-do list. It requires growth. It may be in baby steps, but those steps are worth it.”

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.

Sidebar: Becoming Unified

Special Olympics supports single events for student athletes and teams in more than 30 sports, ranging from cricket, judo, and power lifting to softball, swimming, basketball, and track and field. But it also works to develop Unified Champion Schools, a designation that requires schools to develop sports programs, leadership opportunities, and involvement in the mission by the whole school, says Theresa Fitzpatrick, a spokesperson for the organization.

In order to have the distinction as a Unified Champion School, a school must engage in all three components. However, within the United States, a Special Olympics Unified Champion School can fall within one of the three categories:

  1. Full-Implementation Unified Champion Schools: Those that implement activities from all three core components of the Unified Champion Schools program—Unified Sports, inclusive youth leadership, and whole-school engagement.
  2. Developing Unified Champion Schools: Those that implement Unified Sports and one other component.
  3. Emerging Unified Champion Schools: Those that implement either Unified Sports or a combination of inclusive youth leadership and whole-school engagement. (Schools in this category are encouraged to move to “developing” status within two years of inception.)