By Loren Grube
High school is an important time in a young person’s life when inclusivity and a sense of belonging are highly important. This can be especially challenging for students with disabilities, who make up 13-14% of the school’s population at Lakeside High School in Nine Mile Falls.
At Lakeside, disabled students enter an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) with varying needs for assistance. For example, some have a math learning disability or dyslexia or comprehension troubles. Some disabilities are health related – such as blindness or a developmental disability. Their disability prevents them from participating in mainstream sports.
Nine years ago, Lakeside started a Unified Athletics program with an annual bowling tournament where disabled students from participating schools compete for a trophy. That first year of the program, they realized they could do more, said Principal Brent Osborn. That’s when they looked into the Special Olympics Unified Sports program.
When Lakeside High School Unified Sports first started, there were only four schools competing and all of them were big (3A and 4A) schools. Lakeside was the only smaller (1A) school of its size. So they were excited when Colville High School joined the program last year, said Osborn. There are now eight schools competing in Unified Sports – Lakeside, Colville, Central Valley, Cheney, Mt. Spokane, Mead, Rogers, and Ridgeline.
“The program has grown. It used to be more like a club, and now it is more accepted as an athletic program,” said Debra Carden, Unified Lead Coach.
The Lakeside Unified Athletics team participates in two organized sports – winter basketball and spring soccer. The school plans to expand the program to include Unified Track and Field. There are currently 12 participants in the program – Athletes (disabled players) and Partners (non-disabled assistants), matched up by similar age and ability.
In November, after-school practices take place each week for basketball season. Competition begins in mid-January and lasts four weeks. Each week, four Unified schools compete in two games. During the basketball games, partners focus on supporting athletes by helping get the ball around the court. They also attend practices together.
The last game of basketball season took place on Feb. 3 at Mead High School. Soccer practice begins in March with competition starting after spring break.
“They become friends with the kids at the other schools,” said Carden. “They all think they’re best friends.” At a recent home game, Carden said the cheerleaders and pep band came out and onlookers filled up the stands in support of the team. Parents also left positive comments about the game on Facebook. “There is so much support,” she said.
Unified goes beyond the sports, though, said Principal Osborn. The Lakeside High School Unified leadership team wants all kids to have a sense of belonging. They want all students to go to class and engage directly with their teacher, said Osborn who brought up the example of a young man who is in a wheelchair and has communication challenges. He said the leadership team is pushing to have him in class without a parent aid. Instead, peer students are trained in what they call an “Exceptionality” class, which equips them to work one on one to assist the disabled student. By training other students to assist at a peer level, the disabled student feels more connected with their teacher and classmates.
In 2019, Lakeside High School was recognized as a National Unified Champion school and also received recognition as a National Banner School for meeting 10 standards of excellence, including Unified Sports, Inclusive Youth Leadership and Whole-School Engagement. They proudly display their banner in the school gym.
“It’s all about the adults wanting to lead the program. When you have good coaches in place, you can have a successful program,” said Principal Osborn.
The Lakeside High School “Inclusion” mission is driven by Devan Bower, Department Head; Mike McCune, Athletic Director; Debra Carden, Unified Lead Coach; and Tonda Day, Paraprofessional. Bower won ESP 101 teacher of the year, and has led the inclusion work at Lakeside High School.
“It is such a good team, who all believe in ‘all’ kids doing ‘all’ things,” said Osborn. “When you have that belief, great things happen – inclusion in assemblies, sporting events, school activities. We try to make sure ‘all’ really does mean ‘all.’”
Special Olympics was first started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968 to provide people with intellectual disabilities a place to play sports and feel included. “Unified Sports” was established in 1989 by Beau Doherty (Special Olympics, Connecticut) to join students with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team; it was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.
There are currently 8,358 Unified Champion schools nationwide with 251,044 participants (pre-K through college). In 2011, Unified Sports started in Seattle, Washington and in 2013 expanded across the state where there are currently 123 Unified Champion schools and 1,731 participants.
Special Olympics provides support and rules for the Unified Sports program, but each school runs their own program at the school level. Morgan Larche, Director of Unified Sports for Special Olympics, commends Lakeside High School for taking on the program as their own. She said, “I give them props for treating Unified Sports similarly to the other sports in the school, so all students have the opportunity to represent LHS through athletic training and competition.”
For more information about the program and how your school can participate in the inclusion effort, visit https://specialolympicswashington.org/unified/.