Guilderland High School Receives National Banner Recognition from Special Olympics

Originally published on the Guilderland Central School District website

Guilderland High School was recognized nationally by Special Olympics as a Unified Champion School, which demonstrates a commitment to inclusion by GHS and the Guilderland Central School District. GHS was originally certified as a Unified Champion School in 2019; schools must reapply for banner status every four years.

One of just 11 schools in New York to receive the national banner recognition, this designation indicates that GHS has an inclusive school climate and manifests a sense of collaboration, engagement and respect for all members of the student body and staff.

To receive the Special Olympics Unified Champion School national banner recognition, GHS was required to meet 10 standards of excellence, which include offering unified sports in at least two seasons throughout the year, inclusive youth leadership and whole-school engagement activities. These standards were developed by a national panel of leaders from Special Olympics and the education community. Unified athletics join student athletes of all levels of ability to train and compete as teammates; GHS offers four unified sports, bocce, bowling, cheer and basketball, as well as unified physical education classes, with more than 250 students participating.

Creating Inclusive Experiences and Opportunities for All Students

By offering unified sports in each athletic season, “each and every GHS student has an equal opportunity, year-round, to participate in athletics,” said Unified Sports and Athletics Coach Allison Relyea. Unified cheer was added during the unified basketball season to attract students who want to participate and support their fellow unified athletes and partners.

“The best part of it is the more we do these things, the more opportunities snowball, even outside of what we created,” said Colette Gallagher, Unified Sports and Athletics Coach. “So now we have more students with intellectual disabilities who are attending football games, who are going to soccer games. Once you open the door to acceptance and opportunities, it continues to expand. That’s really the end goal.”

With the ultimate objective of creating an inclusive school environment for all, Mrs. Relyea, Mrs. Gallagher and fellow Unified Sports and Athletics Coach Kelly Tynan, have sought to provide experiences and opportunities for students through unified athletics and physical education, Special Olympics competitions and clubs at the high school level. One such club is Best Buddies, which enables students of all abilities to develop one-to-one relationships. Club members break social barriers by socializing outside of school; students get ice cream, go to the movies or bowling.

GHS has further strengthened its relationship with Special Olympics through the formation of a youth activation committee, Students for Inclusion. This group enables student leaders with and without disabilities to plan activities that advance and advocate for respect, inclusion and acceptance for all. Students for Inclusion promotes GHS’ unified sports teams while also creating a more socially inclusive climate through various whole school engagement campaigns, such as bowl-a-thons and the Polar Plunge. Last year a small group participated in the Polar Plunge in Lake George; this year there are plans to expand the number of participants by inviting the entire GHS student population. Polar Plunge is an important fundraising opportunity for Special Olympics.

Alyssa O’Connor, Unified Athlete

Alyssa O’Connor, a GHS senior, first became involved as a unified athlete when Mrs. Relyea recruited her for unified bowling. Now Alyssa participates in unified bocce and unified physical education (UPE), although bowling remains her favorite sport. “It just makes me feel included,” said Alyssa. “And it makes me feel like I’m part of a whole team. Like my team has my back and helps me and I help them. I like helping too and I really want more.”

When asked how becoming a unified athlete has affected her, Alyssa said “I feel like I have evolved around a lot of things and it just feels normal. It feels good….the hallways are great because I have great friends and great teachers.”

In addition to unified athletics and physical education, Alyssa also competes in Special Olympics State Games.

Cole Miller, Partner

GHS senior Cole Miller’s first experience as a partner competing alongside unified athletes was at the start of his sophomore year. “That year opened my eyes to a world outside of my boundaries,” said Cole. “In the regular school day, we don’t get to see a lot of the unified athletes and they don’t see us very often. Unified PE gave us the opportunity to see each other, get to know each other. So I got to know a bunch of the athletes on a more personal level. I hear about their families, I hear about what they like to do. So you get to know them even better.”

In his junior year, Cole went to the Special Olympics State Games to compete in bocce, where he discovered another side of unified athletics. “That opened my eyes to the competition part, which is pretty fierce. It’s awesome!” said Cole.

Now, as a senior, Cole has been able to build relationships with students he might not have had the chance to meet, if not for unified athletics and Special Olympics. He described the Yard Game Olympics, which brings students who participate in unified and physical education programs from Guilderland, Amsterdam and Niskayuna together to play five yard game events, including cornhole, ladder ball and bocce. “We connect with other athletes, other partners, who we see multiple times throughout the year…we get to build relationships.”

When asked to describe his involvement with unified athletics and Special Olympics, Cole said “I got fully engulfed in it and really love the experience and the way it makes me feel. It gives me a different perspective on all the things I have in my life, the things I have to feel fortunate for.”

The Impact of Unified Athletic Programs

It’s been shown that unified sports increases acceptance of people of all abilities while reducing stigma and bullying; Mrs. Tynan has seen this for herself. “There is always going to be bullying in the hallways, but hopefully less of it. Now students see other students with intellectual disabilities or physical disabilities as more of a norm. We can only hope that this continues and makes a larger impact not only across our school community but the community in general. People can just be kind.”

According to research provided by Special Olympics, unified athletes report improvement in their self esteem after participating in unified sports and coaches report improved confidence, enhanced communication and social inclusion. When asked by Cole if participating in unified athletics has helped build her confidence, Alyssa responded wholeheartedly, “yes!” with Cole agreeing he felt the same.

“What’s so impressive about Cole and Alyssa, in general, is they’ve taken risks, both of them, in their own different ways,” said Mrs. Relyea. “They’re getting out of their comfort zones. It’s not possible to have the programs without the kids. You need the Cole Millers and the Alyssa O’Connors. You need people to say yes; to say I want to be involved. Coaches and teachers can push as much as they want. It’s up to the kids at the end. They’re the ones who are the ambassadors of anything we offer.”

A great benefit to unified programs is that they better integrate the school community, providing for environments that are increasingly more inclusive. Mrs. Gallagher said, “for me, I think it mimics the real world in a way it previously did not. In a community everyone is integrated, so in school, they have to be too. I think you don’t even know what you’re building until after you’re doing it, right? There’s so much to this, I couldn’t sum it up. There have been so many moments we’ve all had, where we all think it’s so much bigger than we expected it to be.

Planning for Future Expansion of Programs

The Unified Sports and Athletic advisors discussed having seen significant growth in the level of interest by athletes and partners, and would like to add more to GHS’ slate of unified offerings, including programs outside of athletics, such as art or music. “We see having a variety as important too,” said Mrs. Gallagher. “Not everyone has the same interests, which is why unified PE is awesome but what about the kids who love art? We need to create things so that we’re opening up opportunities for everyone. Right now I think there are probably still kids who are not included because it’s just not their thing so we have to keep building.” For her part, Alyssa agrees, “I like to learn new things and I like to expand my variety.”

Another goal of the program is to expand unified athletics to Farnsworth Middle School, where FMS students have expressed interest in participating in GHS activities. Mrs. Relyea is hoping the physical education cabinet, a group of districtwide PE teachers who meet monthly with the athletic director, will address this need. A major objective is to start unified PE at FMS for the 2024-25 school year, which would provide a good “feeder program” to GHS. “Freshmen would have an understanding of what unified is because the buzz, from my experience, gets more and more. I already have students who want to be involved in bowling that are freshmen that I’ve never even worked with.”

The number of participants at GHS remains healthy: bowling has approximately 40 students participating, which is enough for two teams. Basketball also draws about 40 students. Bocce, in its first year, drew 24 students – double the number needed to field a team. With such a solid foundation and positive word of mouth, Mrs. Gallagher acknowledges that students “are the ones who make it happen each year. So other kids will know about Alyssa’s and Cole’s experiences and then they’ll have it on their radar that maybe next year, ‘I’ll do that.’ That’s how we get the next group.”

Alyssa agrees with her advisors that there are plenty of possibilities when more experiences are made available to students. “And also it gives them more opportunity and more time to experience those experiences. Each one will have different experiences. Who knows what might happen? You might meet a new friend, you might meet a new teacher. As long as you have fun with it and you’re willing to try, that’s most important, if you’re willing to try.”

More About How GHS Meets Special Olympics Standards

To meet the ten Special Olympics standards of excellence, Banner Unified Champion Schools must offer inclusive, whole-school and sustainable programs. Following are a few of the activities and programs in place at GHS:

Spread the Word to End the Word: Conducted in March, GHS students run a campaign to address a particularly powerful form of exclusion, use of the “r-word,” while inspiring respect and acceptance.

Bowl-a-Thon: Open to the entire GCSD school community, including siblings, families and residents, this fun event is a fundraiser for Special Olympics.

Spirit Rally: A whole school event, the Spirit Rally is when the recognition banner is revealed to the GHS community.

Quiet Cafe: Because cafeterias can often be loud and chaotic, some students, seeking quiet, would eat lunch in classrooms or hallways, excluding them from the most social time of the school day. In response to this issue, Students for Inclusion designed, painted and created a tranquil space where students could eat, socialize and play games in a quieter environment.

To read more about the Class of 2023 National Banner Unified Champion Schools, visit