The stands erupted as Sparta High School student James Towery rebounded and headed back down court during a recent Special Olympics basketball match between Sparta Area Schools and Forest Hills Public Schools students. “Coast-to-coast James Towery!” said the game’s announcers, Sparta senior Jared Coye and junior Ben Willcox. “Beautiful execution from the Spartans.”
The game was just one of many team-building athletic activities getting students in Sparta special education programs pumped. And what’s not to get excited about? A gymnasium full of cheering fans, suiting up in the school colors, sinking shots and gaining court advantage on the jump ball are all points of pride for James and his teammates.
“I like to play with all my friends,” James said, adding, “I feel like a professional.”
“It’s special because they get to be part of a team,” said Samantha Klemm, Moderate Cognitive Impairment teacher and one of the team’s coaches. “It’s their time to shine. Once they put on a uniform, they’re ready to rock.”
Beyond the Court
Special Olympics sports such as basketball, poly hockey and track have been a highlight of the school’s special education programming for years. Recently added to the activities, Project Unify pairs special education and general education students for activities such as skiing, snowboarding, speed skating and snowshoeing.
“A lot of these students would never get on a ski hill,” said Ridgeview Elementary Mild Cognitive Impairment teacher Renee LaVancher. “The program uses sports to unify students, (and) build awareness in the gen ed population.”
For bringing the student body together, Project Unify was unanimously applauded by Sparta’s special education teachers. “It’s an opportunity for our students to shine on their level, and gets the gen ed kids to invite our students to play games during lunch,” said Sparta Middle School Mild Cognitive Impairment teacher Doug Peterman. “Our students feel accepted by them,” added Peterman, who said he sees a lot more mingling and high-fives between students in the hallways.
‘This Program is So Important’
Although the sports might seem like fun and games, special education teachers say the activities are rooted in deeper educational outcomes, from comradery to following directions and learning new vocabulary in unique environments.
“The more practice (our students) get, the more independent they become,” said Appleview Elementary Mild Cognitive Impairment teacher Lynelle Geers. “The sports open up a new social world. It gives the students a linking ground for interaction and conversation.”
Geers explained that social skills are important lessons in the program, comparing them to the ABCs gen ed students learn in kindergarten. “These opportunities provide experiences that willhelp them develop into functional, employable adults.”
The fact that the students are learning new skills and activities only sweetens the deal, explained the educators. Peterman said that parents, thanks to the in-school interactions, feel more comfortable getting their children involved in activities outside of school, and that the students are bonding with peers at other districts as well, providing more district-to-district unity.
To distill the program into one positive outcome, Peterman explains, “It helps (students) realize they can do all of the things ‘normal kids’ do.”
And the benefits are far-reaching, he said. “It’s a great reward for us too. Every time we get to see them compete, it’s such a joy.”