A Truly Socially Inclusive School Benefits Everyone

February 7, 2014
Photo credit: leaveonlyfootprints via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Can a school have a positive culture and climate when its special needs students are not strongly included in the mainstream of all of its activities? This is a question that is not posed often enough in the social-emotional and character development worlds, but it is asked constantly in the offices of Special Olympics International (SOI). Within SOI, Project UNIFY is tasked with creating programming that brings differently-abled students together in various forms of shared activities and purposes, focused on the mainstay of SOI, sports.

SOI and UNIFY just released a report, Project UNIFY: Social-Inclusion Lessons from the Field, describing the results of intensive site visits and case studies of 21 schools around the United States that have been implementing Project UNIFY successfully over the past few years. Below, I will describe UNIFY and share a quick summary of three of the case studies from the report:

What Is Project UNIFY?

Project UNIFY is Special Olympics' effort to create a constellation of programs for schools and communities, focused on sports, that respects the dignity of all youth and empowers them to act as agents of change for young people with intellectual disabilities. While students with intellectual disabilities are the focus, and have long been the impetus for Special Olympics' efforts, in practice, it is the genuine and respectful inclusion of all individuals (regardless of their specific abilities or lack thereof) that is desired.

The term that Project UNIFY uses often is "youth activation," and this refers to the need for everyone to see themselves as leaders and advocates for their own and others' well being. Among the strategies used by Project UNIFY are:

1. UNIFIED Sports involving youth with and without special needs developing skills and playing sports together both during school time (often as UNIFIED P.E.) and after school.

2. R-Word Campaigns involving youth getting together to create videos, assemblies, and other school-wide and community programs to eliminate the use of the word, "retarded."

3. Service-Learning and Leadership Development opportunities including inclusive Student Councils, Best Buddies, Youth Activation Councils, and Partners Clubs for join service project activities.

4. Young Athletes focused on toddlers and preschoolers and encouraging their motor development as a gateway to later sports participation.

5. Youth Summits and Forums where youth of varying abilities come together to share ideas, explore common social issues and community concerns, and generally enhance one another's common energy and capabilities.

6. Camp Shriver a summer sports camp for inclusive skill development and competition.

7. Community Awareness and Education which can happen through service projects as well as sport-linked activities like Fans in the Stands and UNIFIED Sports Pep Rallies and school or community-linked inclusive games and tournaments.

8. Volunteers which have always been the hallmark of SOI, are involved in coaching, skill development, organizing events, fundraising, and numerous other ways of supporting inclusive activity.

Social-emotional and character development (SECD) is at the core of how these programs work and succeed. SECD denotes the skills and attitudes needed for all of these activities to come to fruition and to continue past the "event" stage, to become integrated into the school and community culture and climate. So there is a strong and essential partnership between Project UNIFY's efforts to promote social inclusion and efforts that schools undertake to promote social-emotional learning and service, civic, and character education. Without social inclusion, can a school ultimately claim to be a school of character?

Social Inclusion as a Superordinate Value

All of the strategies and programs are designed to promote schools and communities in which the full and mutual inclusion of individuals with a range of abilities becomes the natural state. Social inclusion is viewed as a right, benefit, and value, not only for those who might have the kinds of labels traditionally provided by our special education systems, but for everyone. Those who have participated in Project UNIFY, and Special Olympics, more generally, can argue convincingly that those who have "done the including" have derived even more than those who have "been included."

Project UNIFY has extraordinary scope. It currently involves more than 2,300 schools across 47 states and has a growing international presence, as well. Over 37,000 Special Olympics athletes and 42,000 youth leaders are involved, with nearly 1,700,000 young people touched by UNIFY projects and activities. Between December 2011 and March, 2013, Project UNIFY team members visited 21 schools, conducting interviews, focus groups, document reviews and in other ways determining from all levels of the school and community what strategies were most effective in promoting genuine and deep social inclusion. This evaluation will serve as a springboard for follow-up studies on longer-term sustainability. But meanwhile, much was learned. A summary of three of the case studies follows; all 21 are in the full report.

White Pine Elementary School, Boise, Idaho

This school serves 468 students in grades PK-6. UNIFY started in PE, as a buddy program focused on fitness and friendship. Such programs focus on students helping one-another become more physically able while enjoying one another's company and building stronger relationships. This was extended to Reading Buddies and then Lunch Buddies. For more information, email Becca Anderson.

James C. Wright Middle School, Madison, Wisconsin

James C. Wright Middle School serves 242 students in grades 6-8, 83 percent of whom are Title I eligible. UNIFY is focused around an after-school leadership club enacting community service projects, such as Hoops for Heart and support of a local food pantry. This is part of a larger effort that extends into the school, via inclusive advisory periods, and an emphasis on a school culture and climate that is actively affirming and respectful. For more information, email Diana Miller.

New Iberia Senior High School, New Iberia, Louisiana

New Iberia Senior High School serves 1,591 students in grades 9-12, and when UNIFY started, the school had above-average dropout and special education rates. UNIFIED Sports was embraced by the football teams and coaches, leading to UNIFIED Flag Football including members of the Varsity and JV team. This has led to UNIFIED PE, an increase in socially inclusive activities after school, and much more active encouragement of special needs students trying out for and participating in a range of school sports clubs and activities. This has led to a transformation of the mission statement: "NIHS, together with families and the community, will create a superior educational experience for all students by offering a positive and innovative learning environment." For more information, email Cindy Landry.

In my next blog, I will share Project UNIFY's lessons learned about how you can make your school into a more inclusive school.

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  • Curriculum Planning
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Special Education

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