Columbia High School Earns National Special Olympics Recognition for Inclusion

Students Unfurl Special Olympics Unified Sports Banner During Schoolwide Pep Rally

East Greenbush, NY – Special Olympics New York and the East Greenbush Central School District today announced that Columbia High School has achieved national banner status in recognition of its leadership in creating an inclusive school community where all students are accepted, celebrated, and included. The distinction marks the highest level of achievement for Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools in the nation.

The Devils for Inclusion Club gathered all students for a schoolwide pep rally today to celebrate the achievement with district leaders and Special Olympics New York officials.

“There are more than 10,000 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools across the country, and national banner status is reserved only for the best of the best,” said Special Olympics New York President and CEO Stacey Hengsterman. “We are incredibly proud to recognize Columbia High School for its leadership in creating a school environment where inclusion, tolerance and acceptance of all students is the rule and not the exception. Congratulations and thank you to the entire school community.”

“It is truly an honor to be recognized by Special Olympics New York as a National Banner Unified Champion School,” said Columbia Athletic Director Ryan Jones. “It is amazing to see the culture that has been established at Columbia in support of our Unified teams. To see the students come together, compete hard and have a smile on their faces at the end of the day is what it’s all about.”

In a Unified Champion School, students with and without intellectual disabilities play on the same sports team. They also lead events and activities throughout the year that encourage all students to practice and value inclusion. At more than 300 Unified Champion Schools statewide, the program is reducing bullying and teasing, overturning negative stereotypes and spurring healthy social interactions.

Columbia High School formed a Unified Basketball team in 2012-13 as part of a pilot program sponsored by Special Olympics New York and the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. The team competes against other high schools in the Capital Region each season, and in 2018, won a bronze medal at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle.

In 2015-16, Columbia added a Unified Bowling team.

“Our Unified Sports and Devils for Inclusion program continues to provide opportunities for ANY and ALL of our students to compete in authentic athletic competitions and learn what it means to truly be part of a team,” said Columbia Unified Basketball Head Coach Audra Di Bacco. “It has allowed students to feel included in ways that extend past classroom interactions by creating true friendships and connections – connections that impact every person involved. This program goes beyond sports; it teaches valuable life skills to EVERYONE who participates. Each year, our team becomes a family and students will take this unforgettable experience with them long after they have graduated Columbia High School.”

“I get to meet new people, make new friendships playing on a school team and learn new life skills,” said Trinity, a player on the Columbia Unified Basketball Team.

A Unified Champion School receiving national banner recognition is one that has demonstrated the highest commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 standards of excellence. The standards were developed by a panel of leaders from Special Olympics and the education community nationally. The primary activities within these standards include: Special Olympics Unified Sports (where students with and without disabilities train and compete as teammates), Inclusive Youth Leadership, and Whole-School Engagement. To achieve banner status, Unified Champion Schools must also demonstrate that they are self-sustainable or have a plan in place to sustain these activities into the future.

If you don’t have this in your school, you should! Click here to get started or send an email to unified@nyso.org.