By Mindy Ragan Wood
Skyview Elementary School takes inclusion for special learners and athletes seriously.
On Wednesday, state officials with the national Special Olympics Unified Sports program presented the organization’s national award banner as a National Unified Champion School to Skyview students and staff. The Unified Sports program is a Special Olympics branch designed for elementary school children who are too young to participate in Special Olympics.
Skyview is the first elementary school in Oklahoma to receive the annual award.
Typical third grade learners partner with special needs students for socialization and sports training. The goal is to create a culture of inclusion and respect for all students regardless of learning difference and physical impairment.
“It started 10 years ago with (teacher) Trisha Adair,” Skyview Principal Carla Smith recalled.
“That was before Unified Sports was invented to help kids on both ends learn from each other. They learn what we have in common and how to overcome our differences through the same interests and share the same way of doing things.”
Students apply to be a “buddy” and help special students do crafts, share a snack and participate in Bocce, bowling, and other athletic sports. The primary goal of the program is to blur the line between special needs students and typically functioning peers.
Smith said she sees the power of the program at work on the playground.
“What I have observed being outside on the playground is sometimes our athletes, our special Olympians don’t know how to get involved in a group and they shy away from joining in,” Smith said. “Buddies see them and say, ‘why don’t you come and play with us?’They’ve had the opportunity to get to know that child as a child. The other students who aren’t part of that program see that and start to mimic that too. There’s still a lot of room to grow but we are seeing a difference.”
Skyview applied for the national designation last summer and had to qualify based on 10 areas of criteria.
The standards were developed by a national panel of leaders from Special Olympics and the education community. Some of the standards include having a Special Olympics trained coach, available sports across several grade levels, regular leadership and activity meetings, a financially sustainable program and the program must be equally recognized and valued as other sports programs by the school.
Skyview spent the last five years working toward the criteria, but it joins Yukon High School which has been a national banner school for 11 years.
“We’re excited that Skyview reached this status,” Oklahoma Special Olympics spokeswoman Paige Martin said. “They’re the first elementary school in Oklahoma to reach the status of inclusion and that’s what it’s about, to promote inclusion. To see a school work so hard, it’s a huge achievement for them and for our program as well. Hopefully this will push other elementary schools to follow their path.”
Smith gave credit to the volunteers who make the program possible.
“Jackie Duncan, our coordinator and teacher for the sports, she does all the hard work,” Smith said. “We have two or three teachers that stay for the study buddies after school and volunteer their time.”
The presentation left one special Olympian so overjoyed during the ceremony that she cried tears of joy, Smith said. Student co-athletes were also happy.
“Truly their eyes are opened,” Smith said of the buddies. “They see that there’s nothing these special needs kids can’t do. They may need different supports and a little assistance, but they’re very capable. The excitement of a successful experience, when they see the joy and their faces light up, that’s motivating for them right there. When they see what they have in common they realize it’s an acceptance of another person.”