Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools are on the front line of the inclusion revolution, changing the culture in schools around the world.
Annie Zekas wakes up. Her alarm goes off and she gets out of bed because it’s a school day. It’s cold out. Wisconsin winters are cold. The temperature is below freezing. The snow accumulations have piled up — onto the driveway, the front stoop, the sidewalks in the neighborhood.
As she fixes breakfast, she looks out the window and sees the roads have been cleared. They have been, earlier that morning, salted and sanded. The roads are clear and so the school buses will be running. It takes more than some snow to keep Wisconsinites from attending school.
Zekas goes to Reedsburg Area High School in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. It’s your typical high school. There is an English class to attend. Math. There are courses in biology and U.S. history. The school has choraliers and yearbook; pep band and a clay target team. On weekends the school’s student body cheers on the Beavers to victory, whether it be wrestling or football; hockey or basketball; softball or track.
Zekas is quite active as a Reedsburg Beaver. She takes all her classes. She likes meeting new people. She likes making friends. She likes going to pizza parties. She’s also a really good bowler. She’s a Special Olympics athlete.
Elsewhere, there’s a basketball game going on at Watertown High School in Watertown, Massachusetts. Sports are a big deal on campus and throughout the community. The Watertown Raiders are best known for their field hockey and boys basketball programs. The town, during the various sports seasons, is festooned in school colors: red and black.
NFL player Mark Roopenian, who played for the Buffalo Bills, is an alumnus of the school. So is Major League Baseball player George Yankowski, who played for the Philadelphia Athletics and the Chicago White Sox as a catcher back in the day.
Sports are an important thread to the fabric of the community. Victories come in many forms. For instance, there’s a different kind of victory happening at the aforementioned basketball game. The coach wants wins — what coach doesn’t? — but some wins aren’t easily discerned by reading the box score in the next day’s local paper, the Watertown News.
A student in the school’s special education program enters the game to help the team win. He takes his first shot during the game and misses. He shoots a second and misses that one, too. The game moves furiously up and down the court, the scoreboard bright with numbers and brighter still with the fans in attendance. He shoots a third time. He misses.
Then, in an instant, he has the ball and is open. He squares himself up with the basket and, feet just behind the 3-point line, he elevates. He extends his arms. He releases the ball. It leaves his hand, flies into the air above the heads of the vaunted Raiders team and the opposing team, too.
The ball goes in. The crowd goes wild. He is so joyful for having contributed to the game. He is so joyful that, for a moment, he feels like a hero on the hardwood — a Steph Curry; a LeBron James. And he is. He’s so proud of his efforts on the court that he hugs himself with euphoria.
Meanwhile, across the globe, a soccer game is being played on a pitch in Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s the third day of an African Summit. The summit is entitled, “Influencing the Unified Footprints of Tomorrow.” The gathering includes athletes, siblings, and youth leaders.
The soccer game is part of Special Olympics South Africa. There is no way to get all 45,000+ registered South African athletes and United Partners onto that field, but their hearts are there, regardless. Their spirit is in the stands and on the grass, tied tight and dreams of sport glory held firm.
Whether it’s in a bowling alley in a small town in Wisconsin, on a basketball court in Massachusetts, or a soccer field in South Africa, Special Olympics is united and unifying in their Unified Champion Schools program.
“The best part about participating in Unified activities,” said Annie Zekas, “is I get to meet new people and do things with my friends.”
Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools is a worldwide program for schools Pre-K through university that intentionally promotes meaningful social inclusion by bringing together students with and without intellectual disabilities to create accepting school environments, utilizing three interconnected components — Unified sports, inclusive youth leadership, and whole school engagement.
“I grew up on hockey,” said Jacqueline Jodl, Chief Education Officer at Special Olympics. So, to play field hockey in Senegal with students of differing abilities, she jumped at the chance. “They went at it with such gusto,” she said. “They were not laying off on me, at all.”
After the game, families came up to her. They introduced their children to her; told her how proud they were of their children. They embraced Jodl. “It touched my heart,” she said. Playing the game, for Jodl, helped her understand again, “the love in a child’s face and the parents’ love of them.”
Playing a game, oftentimes, is much more than playing a game.
Matt Terry knows how much a game means, how much feeling included can bring a child, how it can help both the student with disabilities and the student without. He is the principal at Reedsburg Area High School. Zekas is one of his students.
“Special education students are an integral part of our school climate and culture,” he said. The school has approximately eight special needs teachers and around 145 special education students.
His school is part of the Special Olympics Unified Champion School program. He said the program “has been wonderful.” He continued, “It is clear that students find value in the activities that they participate in and relationships are built because of their time together.”
That time is spent at tailgate parties before football games, bowling outings, pizza parties, holiday gatherings like Christmas caroling. “We have a number of events where students get to interact outside of the regular school day,” Terry said. “It’s become very natural for them to interact at all times of day.”
The benefits go far beyond the sporting event. It goes far beyond the special education students. The benefits permeate the entire school.
Jodl rattles off a plethora — individually, the program increases empathy, belonging, and connections to the school community. It reduces bullying. “They begin to learn from one another,” she said. “Differences begin to melt away. Commonalities emerge.” Jodl continued, “Building friendships becomes easier and bridges are built, creating broader deeper societies.”
On the broader school level, benefits are found. A study done in North Carolina found that where Special Olympics Unified Champion School programs are implemented, there was a school-wide improvement in grades and higher test scores.
Further, other minority groups within the school, including LGBTQ+, ethnic groups, and others see a rise in inclusion and a decline in bullying. “It’s not just special education kids who are thriving, all the kids are,” Jodl said.
“The best part about participating is that it’s fun and enjoyable to make new friends and see all the high schoolers together,” said Madelyn Olson, a junior at Reedsburg Area High School. A member of the school’s student council, Olson said, “For me, inclusion is making sure everyone feels welcome.”
In 2020-21, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of students, aged 3 to 21, who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act was 7.2 million. That number is, approximately, 15 percent of all public school students.
The number of students served in special needs programs continues to increase. In the last decade, the number has risen by a million students.
One in six children in the U.S. has a form of developmental delay, according to AAP News. Males are twice as likely as females to have delays in terms of ADHD, learning disabilities, and autism. The NCES reports that one in five children applying for college has a disability. Currently, said Education Week, there’s one special education teacher for every 17.1 students with disabilities.
The Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program is in schools to help.
The program started in 2008 with 790 schools nationwide in 22 states. It has grown. Now, 30,000 schools participate in every state and in over 150 countries, affecting the lives of 3.6 million youth, those with and without disabilities. “We know inclusion schools do better,” Jodl. said. “With shared experiences, schools grow.”
Many of those shared experiences are through sports.
Unified Sports are now in more than 8,358 elementary, middle, and high schools in the U.S. Also, 272 colleges and universities have Special Olympics College Clubs on campus.
About 1.4 million people worldwide take part in Unified Sports. ESPN has served as the Global Presenting Sponsor of Special Olympics Unified Sports since 2013. Other partners include, among others, the NBA, the WWE, FIFA Football for Hope, and the EuroLeague.
The children play basketball. They play soccer. They play bocce and badminton; baseball and volleyball. And much more.
“When we have Special Olympics basketball tournaments held at our school,” Terry said, “the stands are filled with people cheering. It is great to see the smiles and feel the energy that it generates.”
The program generates better citizens. “Everyone,” Jodl said, “starts to thrive. You can see it. You can feel it.”
Zekas throws a strike down the bowling lane. In Massachusetts, the gym is abuzz as a special education student runs up the basketball court and hits a shot from the free throw line. In South Africa, just in time, a striker on the pitch scores a game-winning goal.
“Inclusion,” Zekas said, “is you get to know everyone.”
Everyone gets to know everyone. Everyone gets to know how to win, regardless of what’s on the scoreboard. Everyone wins.
Why We Play features stories about the power of sports to bring us together, overcome obstacles, make positive change and reach everyone. Read more here.