Learning First Alliance

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Changing Students' Lives Every Day Through Sport

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By Brian Quinn, Manager of Youth Education & Unified Sports® for Special Olympics North America Project UNIFY 

Take a quick moment to think back to your high school experience. I did this recently, reflecting on the upcoming school year, and it brought up some telling thoughts.  Look away from this article and think for a moment about what you remember.  If you are anything like me, your first thoughts were about specific experiences (positive or negative) and the people who influenced us.  Not so much about tests, papers and homework.

A vivid memory that stays with me is when I got to play one-on-one basketball with Kenny, a student who had an intellectual disability.  He happened to have an adapted physical education session which would sometimes take place adjacent to my general education PE class.  As a freshman and sophomore, I had a difficult time socializing and was not excited about school.  My grades were below average, and I lacked connectivity to my large school environment.  In hindsight, I was a classic case in underachieving.      

My experience slowly turned around as I made more friends, but there is something about that small connection I made with Kenny that has always stuck with me.  Playing with him made me feel so good.  It brightened up my day, and I didn’t have to think so much about my social awkwardness.  I was incredibly self-conscious at this age, and I normally wouldn’t do anything that would make me stand out from the crowd.  There was something about playing with Kenny that felt right and gave me the courage to do something different. 

Thinking back, if my school had provided more of these opportunities, it could have really helped me find a niche and the important connection that I needed at the time.  People in education are realizing more and more the importance of student engagement for increasing graduation rates, improving student performance and self-esteem.  Educators don’t have to feel they are alone in establishing this engagement.  There are two powerful resources they have to create the opportunities I have been describing: Special Olympics and the students themselves. 

Special Olympics has an inclusive schools model called Project UNIFY which provides the tools to create these unique engagement opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities.  With the support of educators, the students are empowered to take leadership in driving this program.  It’s now working in over 2,200 schools in the US.

Administrators will also be happy to know that one component of this inclusive model is Special Olympics Unified Sports®.  This program will help them in addressing the extracurricular sports objectives outlined in the “Dear Colleague” letter that was released to public schools by the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights in January 2013. 

This inclusive model creates a place for students of all ability levels to participate in leadership activities and school athletics.  When students get to represent their school and be a part of something bigger than themselves, it builds a sense of pride, and they typically become more engaged in their school community.  In a recent study by the University of Massachusetts- Boston, 74% of participating students said Project UNIFY was a positive turning point in their lives

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has taken notice of the value in Special Olympics Unified Sports and has been extremely supportive.  In a joint effort between the NFHS and Special Olympics, an online Unified Sports coaches training was launched in 2012.  This resource can be accessed at no cost by anyone in the world at www.nfhslearn.com.

If you are interested in bringing Project UNIFY to your school, or would like more information, there are many avenues available.  Each state, and the District of Columbia, has a Special Olympics Program with support staff in place to help you.  Additional information and free resources can be found at www.specialolympics.org/project_unify.   

Remember, school is about experiences and people.  Bringing Project UNIFY to your school this fall will create a place for students like Kenny and I to truly become a part of your education community.  

You can reach Brian at bquinn@specialolympics.org