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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Inclusivity increasing as more area high schools support unified sports and activities

Jan 05, 2023 10:54AM ● By Julie Slama

At Hillcrest High, freshman Isabelle Wood pied math teacher Matt Synder during a schoolwide assembly in November 2022. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Hillcrest High School junior Kori Carmona Lopez wants to win, the same as any high school student-athlete.

“It’s my favorite part, of course,” she said.

Carmona Lopez, who plays unified soccer and basketball, bonds with her teammates. 

“The best part of being a unified player is having helpers and making and being friends with them. I just love it,” she said. “We hang out, walk the mall, watch movies, do anything. They asked me to join LIA (Latinos-in-Action) so I’m doing more at school now. I just went to the Salsa-Salsa party; it was fun.”

That is a welcomed outcome, said Courtnie Worthen, manager of Special Olympics Utah’s Unified Champion Schools, that promotes a three-tier approach through unified sports, inclusive youth leadership and whole school engagement.

“The best things are the inclusion, the friendships they create, how the athletes are celebrated and are included in school activities,” she said.

Inclusion is increasing in area schools. When Worthen joined the Special Olympics staff four years ago, there were about 15 schools. Now, it’s “pushing 100.”

While Special Olympics encourages inclusion in all schools, a noticeable difference is seen in high schools. Brighton High Principal Tom Sherwood said it’s important.

“Everybody benefits,” he said. “We want our school to be a microcosm of our communities. Our special needs students don’t just make up 10 to 15% of schools; they make up 10 to 15% of our population. Inclusion needs to start in schools. The more we can learn to understand each other, the more it expands our humanity.”

Unified sports are a catalyst, Worthen said.

“Training and playing together often leads to friendship and more understanding,” she said.

Unified sports empower individuals with and without intellectual disabilities to play together, promoting inclusion through training and competition. Whether it’s sharing the ball in soccer and basketball or passing the baton in a track relay, students are participating in unified sports from elementary school to the professional level with Real Salt Lake’s unified team.

While the Utah High School Activities Association partnered to bring unified sports into high schools in 2012, a big push came two years ago when Gov. Spencer Cox and First Lady Abby Cox cheered on the high school unified soccer teams in the state championship games at Real Salt Lake’s stadium. Previously, state was played on a high school field.

“The First Lady, as part of her initiative ‘Show Up,’ came on board and gave us a bigger microphone to share our mission. People started to notice and see what unified sports is and can be and they want to be a part of it,” Worthen said. 

At this fall’s unified state soccer championships, Miss America Emma Broyles sang the national anthem, and Miss Utah Lindsey Larsen and RSL goalkeeper Zac MacMath joined her to award medals. 

Last year, the unified state basketball tournament was held at Weber State University, which attracted college and semi-professional mascots and cheer squads to join high school cheerleaders in supporting the athletes. Unified track this year will be included in the state track and field meet at Brigham Young University.

Unified Champion School’s College-growth Coordinator Boston Iacobazzi said 37 high school unified soccer teams competed this fall and estimates 56 teams will play basketball in March.

“We’re looking at having three unified team sports and three unified individual or pair sports per year,” he said. “We have soccer, basketball, swimming and track and field right now; we’re deciding which sports to possibly add.”

Brighton, which won a state unified basketball title last year, also has students compete in unified soccer and has individuals on the swim team.

“If we truly believe high school sports add value to students’ educational experience, why wouldn’t you want as many students who are able to participate? It’s a very authentic experience and opportunity for everybody to benefit,” Sherwood said. “It’s a win-win.”

Jordan teammates sophomore Xavier Steggell and junior Cael Sieverts played together this past soccer season.

“It’s great to get to do sports and support each other,” Sieverts said. “We spend time practicing and hanging out together.”

Steggell added that it’s competitive, yet fun.

“We’re getting to enjoy the sport for the pure fun of it,” he said.  

That’s what six-year Hillcrest High unified coach Shannon Hurst appreciates.

“I like the joy little things bring to the athletes, like kicking the ball or dribbling it down the field or court,” she said. “It offers perspective. Those little things bring so much happiness. The more buy-in and getting involved as faculty, with support from admin(istration) and our community, the bigger it has grown and been accepted. That’s important. They deserve the same kind of recognition, the same programming and the same support.”

Iacobazzi, who completed his student teaching for his college degree at Alta High, reignited unified sports at the school.

“Being a coach gave me a different experience than being a partner,” he said. “As a unified partner, I was there to have fun playing alongside the athletes. As a coach, I’m teaching them how to be inclusive, playing together. What helped was the partners. A lot of them were peer tutors in the classroom. Alta’s girls’ soccer team taught a bunch of drills, and some of those girls just kept playing with the team.”

Iacobazzi didn’t grow up playing soccer. He first was a peer tutor, then his first soccer experience was playing for his high school unified team, under Hurst, when Hillcrest represented the nation at the 2018 Special Olympics USA games. Iacobazzi helped gain momentum with forming Real Salt Lake’s unified team.

In a state qualifying matchup, Alta played against Murray High, who eventually became state champions. Murray brothers Braedon and Turbo Domiguez played in the championships and their parents, Kim and Dean, witnessed their gold medal win.

“This program gives our kids a chance to get out and participate,” Kim Domiguez said. “As special needs’ parents, we spend all our time when they’re little trying to teach them the basics—how to eat, how to talk to somebody, how to interact. We’ve missed out on our kids growing up playing soccer and basketball, so this has been really nice to feel like a soccer mom. We brought our cooler full of Gatorade, our canopy and chairs. This is our time to cheer for our kids.”

That feeling of “belonging” stretches to the athletes on the field.

“These kids are there for each other. They cheer for everyone. It doesn’t matter which side you are on. They’re excited for everyone to score and have that success. They still want to win, but they want everyone to have fun,” Domiguez said, adding that high school cheerleaders also cheer for every player at all schools.

Her husband said learning skills and translating those in a game has given his sons confidence and a sense of accomplishment.

“On the field, they learn key concepts of the game that you practiced with them, so when they get the goal or they get the stop as a goalkeeper, you can see that moment of joy when they see they ‘got it,’” he said.

Domiguez agrees: “It’s that love of sport and team in their eyes. It’s the same for all athletes. They will raise their arms, jump up and down, dance. They just light up.”

Parent Misti Smith watched her son Ashton play on Hunter High’s unified team.

“Our children would not get these opportunities if it wasn’t brought into the schools,” she said. “I would never have known that Ashton even liked soccer or basketball, but these opportunities came, and I’ve watched his competence and confidence grow. He feels like a rock star when he comes to these games.”

Hunter parent Christie Rasmussen was cheering on her daughter Whitney, who made the first goal of the state semifinals.

“My daughter is making friends that she necessarily probably wouldn’t ever had if it had not been for this program,” Rasmussen said, adding that now Whitney is a cheerleader for the Wolverines. “Because of this, our gen(eral) ed(ucation) kids come and cheer.”  

That happened at the recent regional soccer tournament Hunter hosted when students came with their classes.

“When they cheered, these kids saw their faces there for them. It’s building the camaraderie between the students and making our athletes feel like they’re actual Hunter Wolverines and that they have a place here,” Rasmussen said. “It’s (partner student-athletes) who we parents thank God for because they’re angels on earth and make our kids feel like somebody.”

She credits unified sports as the spark that is extending more opportunities to special education students.

“Because of this team, it has pushed our faculty to realize our kids have these abilities that can be extended. Our theater teacher got approval for them to perform an adaptive musical,” Rasmussen said, adding that Whitney was cast as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” which was performed in early December.

Last spring, Hunter students pledged to be inclusive by signing a poster that hung in the school and many students participate in the unified class taught by PE teacher and unified coach, Ashley Ellis.

Ellis said after-school practices aren’t feasible for everyone, so she created a unified class following the lifetime activities curriculum.

“I wanted our students to participate in unified sports, and thought, that’s a way to get more kids involved,” she said, starting with sharing with the partner students the history of Special Olympics and the goal of inclusion.

Together, they introduce different sports’ skills. 

“As a PE teacher, I saw those kids come into our regular PE classes, and they were not as successful as they could have been. To flip the script and make the class for them and with our regular ed students helping them, it’s changed the playbook so they can be successful,” she said, adding often those partner students join the school’s three unified sports teams. “It’s been the greatest thing. Other schools may think this class is a big daunting task, but the benefit far outweighs any work. Through unified sports, they enjoy sport at its purest form. Unified takes everything that is good about sports and celebrates it.”

Hunter’s unified class is held before lunch.

“Everybody goes into the lunchroom together; they eat together and they’re all laughing. Before, many of them didn’t, they weren’t sure where they fit. Now, that inclusivity flows into other areas of our school,” she said.

Many schools have peer tutors who help students with disabilities be successful.

“They are their buddies who escort them to places, provide support and help them integrate with the rest of the kids,” Sherwood said, adding last spring, Brighton’s peer tutors organized a prom designed for about 50 students with severe cognitive or physical disabilities.

At Murray High, peer tutor Farrah Baldwin said she’s “there to help and answer questions, but not to do it for them.” 

Her classmate Kendall Bridgewater is a peer tutor in a foods class. 

“When these kids with disabilities go into gen ed classes, others get to understand the things that are easier and harder for them to do and that helps everyone be less judgmental and more just willing to get to know them,” she said. “Plus, with cooking, they’re learning a life skill and I’m getting to learn it too. The other day I learned there are five different ways to cook an egg.”

Both seniors are part of Murray High’s Best Buddies, a nonprofit organization that supports inclusion through friendship and leadership. Murray’s club activities stretch from making slime to pumpkin bowling to hosting a Friendsgiving. Plans are underway for a friendship walk in April.

“Everyone in the club knows they have a buddy and can hang out together,” Baldwin said.

Bridgewater is on board: “I want to be a person they can come to in the hallways or see outside of school and know they have a friend.”

Club adviser and unified coach Jessie Agiriga said they’re building an inclusive school environment.

“We want our community to realize everyone has a place where they belong, they are heard, and they are seen,” she said. “Our club officers, who are both special education students and their peers, plan and organize activities for the school. As a result, our students naturally pair up to form friendships.”

Throughout the state, special education and general education students have paired up to serve on Special Olympics’ Youth Activation Commission where, as school leaders, they learn how to spread inclusion in their school, said Iacobazzi, adding at February’s youth summit, students will discuss the unified generation and how to empower peer leaders.

Special Olympics Utah CEO Scott Weaver explained that each step builds.

“We’re hoping they feel valued as an athlete and they’re seen as part of their school’s athletic program; they’re getting the attention at a pep rally and having fans in the stadium waving the flags and banners for them,” he said. “By having the opportunity to belong to a club, they’re impacting the school as leaders. The third part is whole school inclusion.”

Schoolwide activities have ranged from inclusive assemblies and themed spirit days to Disney Days and fitness challenges.

In addition to Unified Champion Schools, Worthen said two high schools recently were added to make four Utah schools who have met and are sustaining 10 requirements to qualify as national banner schools. Hillcrest, which earned the recognition in 2019, is the only one in the area. 

Sherwood said inclusivity benefits both the school and the community.

“As schools start down the road of being as inclusive as they can and provide opportunities for all students, people are going to see the value,” he said. “Once you see it, then you’ll never turn back.”