Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Project Unify-Including All Students in a Rich Education

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By Andrea Cahn, Senior Director, Special Olympics Project UNIFY

 Editor’s Note: This post is form our partners at the Special Olympics Project UNIFY. Each week in January, we will feature a new article on a topic related to the social inclusion of youth with intellectual disabilities. Through this effort, we hope to inform the public of the importance of such inclusion as well as offer educators and parents resources to implement it.

The American education system was founded on the principles of democracy, most important, equity and justice so that all youth would grow to be capable, active, and principled citizens. In fact, the very fabric of our democracy is dependent on students staying in school long enough to learn the 21st century skills necessary to be productive, informed, working citizens. Students who have high school degrees are more likely to have satisfying and successful employment. And yet studies show students leave schools for what seem the most fundamental of reasons: they don’t like school; they don’t feel they belong; they don’t get along with others; they don’t feel safe. And here’s another shocking – and related --dropout statistic; graduation rates for students with disabilities is cited in some studies at over 32%.  At Special Olympics we believe one way to address this issue is through a broader vision of inclusion. We believe authentic inclusion – social inclusion --  is fundamental to many effective education and youth development strategies – and not just for students with special needs, but for all students in every school.

 A Movement Responds

For generations, millions of Americans have looked to the Special Olympics movement as being at the heart of building a more healthy, hopeful, and accepting nation.  And now, a new generation of athletes, volunteers, family leaders and committed citizens are showing the urgency and dedication to be change makers anew.  Based on an abiding belief in the power of sport and its power to  build meaningful relationships and motivated citizens, young people throughout the country have launched Special Olympics Project UNIFY.  Project UNIFY is a multi level effort to promote a youth led vision of ending prejudice and creating schools and communities of acceptance for all, with Special Olympics Unified Sports® teams, and other inclusive sports activities as the primary platform.   At the core of Project UNIFY is a paradigm shift with young people no longer seen as recipients of learning and programming but rather as architects of relationships and community building.

 Project UNIFY integrates Special Olympics programs with ongoing youth activities and focuses on creating and sustaining education systems, classroom practices, school climate and community engagement to ensure all students develop intellectual, physical, civic and emotional competencies. The Project UNIFY “toolkit” includes service-learning curricula, lesson plans and activities to promote respect and combat bullying and name-calling, Unified Sports® and Young Athletes™ programs, Partners Clubs and rallies for respect, education and advocacy campaigns, youth volunteer training and inclusive leadership development opportunities for young people with and without intellectual disabilities (ID). 

 These efforts are, however, not just a random array of feel good programs; rather, they are designed to create specific and measureable change.  Independent evaluation shows that 78% of participating students said Project UNIFY was a positive turning point in their lives; 79% of students felt they became more patient and learned to compromise and 65% of students felt they learned they have things in common with their peers with ID.

 Of the teachers and administrators involved in schools conducting Project UNIFY the value is equally pronounced; 65% of teacher liaisons observed that Project UNIFY helps raise awareness about students with intellectual disabilities and increases opportunities for students with and without ID to work together. Most impressive is that 92% of teacher liaisons said they find Project UNIFY valuable to their school as a whole and 75% of school administrators surveyed reported increased participation of students with ID in school activities and 58% of school administrators viewed Project UNIFY as having an impact on reducing bullying, teasing or the use of offensive language in their schools.

 Project UNIFY aims to be an ally in combating student disengagement and bullying in schools, both key factors in increased dropout.  We are committed to fighting childhood obesity through increased physical activity, to promoting schools where all young people are invited to serve, and to targeting intolerance, hate speech, and bullying by awakening a new generation to discrimination about which they are frequently unaware and which they often unwittingly perpetrate. These efforts can serve as a tipping point for school culture and climate as young people with and without intellectual disability are encouraged to collaborate as creators of their community values and norms. 

 We believe that the work of Special Olympics and Project UNIFY can effectively re-shape schools toward a re-imagined and broader vision of inclusion that leads to deeper relationships, increased self worth, greater student engagement and stronger feelings of belonging --- all factors in keeping all students in school, and arming them with the tools to becoming successful in life.

 We hear every day from teachers, students, superintendants and others who are experiencing the transformation that occurs when all young people, regardless of “ability,” are included, valued and engaged in collaborating together to create climates of welcome and acceptance in their schools. We invite you to join in this commitment, to share your own ideas, and to help create a strong network devoted to establishing a culture where young people are the architects of their own future.