Nine New York High Schools Named Top Unified Champion Schools in the Nation
Special Olympics “Banner” Status is Highest National Honor for Leadership in Creating Inclusive School Communities
Albany, NY – Special Olympics New York President & CEO Stacey Hengsterman today announced that nine New York high schools have been named as National Banner Unified Champion Schools in recognition of their leadership in creating an inclusive school community where all students are accepted, celebrated, and included. The distinction marks the highest level of achievement for Unified Champion Schools in the nation.
Unified Champion Schools earning this national distinction are: Churchville-Chili, Horseheads, Irondequiot, Newark and Victor in the Genessee Region, Starpoint in Western New York, Saratoga Springs in the Capital Region, Southampton in Long Island, and Ithaca High School in Central New York.
In a Special Olympics Unified Champion School, students with and without intellectual disabilities play on the same interscholastic sports team, primarily basketball and bowling. These students also serve as youth leaders who engage the entire school community in activities that encourage and promote inclusion among their peers.
“Students, coaches and educators in more than 10,000 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools across the country are changing a generation by choosing to include all students in all activities, and our banner schools in New York are the best of the best,” said Hengsterman. “We are incredibly proud to kick off the 2020-2021 school year by recognizing the achievements of our banner schools and encouraging others to join this critically important movement to inclusion.”
Statewide, Special Olympics New York partners with more than 220 Unified Champion Schools and nearly 10,000 participating students. Upstate, a partnership with the New York State Public High School Athletic Association has led to rapid Unified growth in recent years.
“We are extremely proud to be a part of the Unified Sports Program; it is one of the most rewarding initiatives that we are involved in,” said NYSPHSAA Executive Director Dr. Robert Zayas. “To see nine schools across the state receive banners honoring their commitment to the Unified Program is an outstanding reminder of how important inclusion is within our member schools.”
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.
Cheektowaga, Guilderland, Iroquois, and Niagara Falls High Schools were recognized as the first Special Olympics Banner Schools in New York last year.
“Unified Sports have changed the culture of our school,” said Joe DiMaria, assistant principal of Starpoint High School. “Students with and without disabilities can be seen walking the halls together and eating lunch together. It’s so much more than sports. It’s genuine inclusion and friendship.”
“There’s nothing more rewarding than being a Special Olympics New York coach,” said Unified Coach Brian Tenety. “Every day, I see teammates with and without intellectual disabilities forming real connections by training and competing together. That connection, and that confidence, transcends the playing field. By creating an inclusive atmosphere where people of all abilities train and compete together, you expand the athletes’ comfort zone, you build their confidence, and you expand their community. My athletes walk out into the world and they feel confident because of this program.”
“This is an amazing honor for Southampton, one that our schools, students, parents and entire community has accomplished together,” said Southampton Principal Brian Zahn. “We are so proud of the efforts of our Unified athletes and Coach Brian Tenety. We look forward to celebrating their accomplishments with a banner ceremony in the spring!”
“We are extremely honored,” said Darren Phillips, director of Athletics, PE and Health. “We are fortunate to have Coach Brian Tenety at Southampton. His enthusiasm for the Special Olympics Unified movement and his passion for working with our students is incredible. He also works with nearby school districts, encouraging them to play Unified and training their staff so that our students have the competition they deserve. Thank you to Special Olympics, Coach Brian and all of the administrators, teachers, staff and parents who support us in the important endeavor.”
“Since the inception of our program 5 years ago, Unified has truly been a life-changing experience for everyone involved,” said Churchville-Chili Unified Coach Katie Cobstill. “Playing Unified helps build students’ confidence, improves their social skills, creates lifelong friendships and helps everyone feel like they are a part of something really special. Off the court, the change in the culture has been incredible to witness. Students with significant special needs and typical high school students are seen high-fiving in the hallways, eating lunch together, attending school events together and developing genuine friendships.”
“We are so proud of our Unified Raiders and Youth Activation Committee. They have worked tremendously hard to achieve the standards of excellence and this national designation,” said Dr. Thomas J. Douglas, Superintendent of Schools, Horseheads Central School District. “Our entire school community has benefited from their tireless efforts to ensure inclusiveness and acceptance in everything we do here in Horseheads. This is a wonderful accomplishment in just the third year of our Unified Raiders program. These students have a great deal to be proud of.”
“I cannot be prouder of all the hard work of our athletes, partners, and Youth Activation Committee (YAC) student leaders, who have brought a positive spotlight onto Irondequoit HS by pushing the ideas of inclusion and acceptance,” said Irondequoit Unified Coach and YAC Adviser Kelly Moroni. “Every event we hold through Unified Sports, YAC activities, or Special Olympics NY activities, we share the idea that there are no disabilities – just different abilities. Everyone brings something different to the table, field, or court. We celebrate all our accomplishments no matter how big or small. Congratulations to the entire school community on this honor.”
“The Unified programs at Newark High really made my everyday life brighter,” said Newark Graduate Lauren MacTaggart. “Throughout my High School career, I participated in lacrosse, volleyball and swimming and none of them even grazed the surface of the pride I felt while stepping on the court with my Unified teammates. The gratitude I have felt throughout the program is something I have never felt before. Unified Sports helped make my high school years wonderful ones – and if I could have everyone feel the way I did, I would.”
“The difference we have seen in our school culture since Victor began playing Unified is astonishing,” said Victor Unified Coach David Vistocco. “The energy during our games and matches is electric, and the friendships between our student athletes and partners are genuine. They are such an inspiration. Every school should be a Unified Champion School!”
“This national recognition for the committed and caring efforts of ICSD students and their educators brings much joy to my heart,” said Ithaca Central School District Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown. “Now, others across the nation will have an opportunity to learn about the talents and successes of our champions.”
“Unified Sports has enriched our community and provided platforms for all students to achieve their dreams,” said Samantha Little, director of athletics and wellness. “Unified Sports has created a more inclusive culture and afforded us to put our values at the forefront of what we believe in as a district. We learn and grow together when we will contribute to engaging, educating, and empowering everyone.”
“Unified Sports not only allows our athletes to show their athletic potential, but also has taught our partners a better understanding of and compassion for students with disabilities,” Margie Shaw, educator for inclusion. “I often hear how our partners have applied this new understanding to involve more people during their days at school: sitting with new friends during lunch, playing with friends in the quad, and even attending prom together! Seemingly small actions that have a huge impact on everyone and moves our district to a more inclusive community.”
“We are so proud of the shift in culture we have seen and felt in ICSD,” said Stephanie Valletta, Unified Sports coach and youth adviser. “We know that the quest for increased inclusion goes beyond the bowling alley or the basketball court and we hope that by earning this national recognition, more and more of our young people will continue to #choosetoinclude in our schools and in our community.”
“I am very proud to work in a school that values and supports the Unified Champion School programming,” said Saratoga Springs Unified Coach Colleen Belanger. “I have had the opportunity to work with students who have the passion and drive to ensure that their school, community, and world they live in are inclusive to all individuals. Our students are the backbone of this accomplishment and I look forward to seeing where they will lead us in the future.”
“I am so proud of everyone at SSHS for helping create an inclusive environment on the court, school, and everyday life,” said Trinity Hogben, SSHS Unified alum. “I’ve personally noticed a shift in the school’s atmosphere, showing that inclusivity is something that we truly understand, respect, and practice. It is an honor to be named a National Unified Champion Banner School. My hope is that this continues to inspire members of our own school, community, and eventually people across the section and state. The Inclusion Revolution is happening now!”