Local schools recognized by Special Olympics
Special Olympics New York recently recognized nine high schools as National Banner Unified Champion Schools for their leadership in creating an inclusive school community where all students are accepted, celebrated and included.
The distinction marks the highest level of achievement for Unified Champion Schools.
Local schools earning this distinction are Churchville-Chili, Irondequiot, Newark and Victor, in addition to Horseheads, Ithaca, Saratoga Springs, Starpoint and Southampton.
In a Special Olympics Unified Champion School, students with and without intellectual disabilities play on the same interscholastic sports team, primarily basketball and bowling. These students also serve as youth leaders who engage the entire school community in activities that encourage and promote inclusion among their peers.
“Students, coaches and educators in more than 10,000 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools across the country are changing a generation by choosing to include all students in all activities,” said Stacey Hengsterman, president and CEO of Special Olympics New York. “We are incredibly proud to kick off the 2020-21 school year by recognizing the achievements of our banner schools and encouraging others to join this critically important movement to inclusion.”
Special Olympics New York partners with more than 220 Unified Champion Schools statewide and nearly 10,000 participating students. Upstate, a partnership with the New York State Public High School Athletic Association has led to rapid Unified growth in recent years.
“Since the inception of our program five years ago, Unified has truly been a life-changing experience for everyone involved,” Churchville-Chili Unified coach Katie Cobstill said. “Playing Unified helps build students’ confidence, improves their social skills, creates lifelong friendships and helps everyone feel like they are a part of something really special.
“Off the court, the change in the culture has been incredible to witness. Students with significant special needs and typical high school students are seen high-fiving in the hallways, eating lunch together, attending school events together and developing genuine friendships.”
“I cannot be prouder of all the hard work of our athletes, partners and Youth Activation Committee student leaders who have brought a positive spotlight onto Irondequoit High School by pushing the ideas of inclusion and acceptance,” said Kelly Moroni, Irondequoit Unified coach and YAC adviser. “Every event we hold through Unified Sports, YAC activities or Special Olympics NY activities, we share the idea that there are no disabilities — just different abilities. Everyone brings something different to the table, field or court. We celebrate all our accomplishments no matter how big or small.”
“The Unified programs at Newark High really made my everyday life brighter,” Newark graduate Lauren MacTaggart said. “Throughout my high school career, I participated in lacrosse, volleyball and swimming, and none of them even grazed the surface of the pride I felt while stepping on the court with my Unified teammates. The gratitude I have felt throughout the program is something I have never felt before. Unified Sports helped make my high school years wonderful ones. If I could have everyone feel the way I did, I would.”
“The difference we have seen in our school culture since Victor began playing Unified is astonishing,” Victor Unified coach David Vistocco said. “The energy during our games and matches is electric, and the friendships between our student-athletes and partners are genuine.”
A Unified Champion School receiving national banner recognition is one that demonstrated the highest commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 standards of excellence. To achieve banner status, Unified Champion Schools also must demonstrate they are self-sustainable or have a plan in place to sustain these activities into the future.