MILFORD – The students involved with the Unified Sports® program at Foran High School had a lot to cheer about recently when they learned their group would receive a National Banner Award from Special Olympics and the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC). Unified Sports® is a registered program of Special Olympics that combines approximately equal numbers of athletes with and without an intellectual disability on sports teams for which they train and compete against other Unified teams across the region. All Unified Sports® players, both athletes and Unified partners, are of similar age and are matched by sport skill ability.
To receive the National Banner Award, school programs must achieve 10 standards that help assure the mission and goals of Special Olympics are being reached. The three main over-arching components include the Unified Sports programming, itself, (as defined by Special Olympics), Inclusive Youth Leadership, and Whole-School Engagement. Schools must be able to show they have achieved these benchmarks and prove their program is self-sustainable into the future.
At Foran, students enjoy soccer, volleyball, basketball, bowling and track throughout the year, with the culminating event being a Unified Prom, held in the spring. The program has been in place at the school for five years.
According to Foran teacher and program co-advisor Rick Raucci, students meet twice a month or more, depending on the season in play. The group competes monthly against other high school Unified Sports® teams in the region. Currently, there are approximately 30-40 students involved in the program at Foran.
Foran student Gabby Foster enjoys attending the many options available through the program. “I like doing Unified sports because I get to do things like soccer and bowling and Unified Cheerleading,” she commented.
Fellow participant Paul Pierelli also enjoys the activities. “My favorite part of ‘unified’ is getting great exercise and getting out of the house,” he reported. He laughingly added that he also enjoys the pizza that is a part of every get-together.
School principal Max Berkowitz was pleased to receive news of the award and said the program has immeasurably changed the culture of the school. “The Unified Sports program has augmented the concept of inclusion throughout our entire school. Our students celebrate the successes and victories of our Unified Teams as enthusiastically as they do for any other team. It is, indeed, an outstanding program and I am grateful for the hard work that is given by Rick Raucci, Meghan Jacobsen (also a faculty co-advisor to the group), and the dozens of staff and students who make this happen,” Berkowitz commented.
Raucci also was quick to add that the program could not operate were it not for the team of para-educators involved. “They work really hard to make sure the kids have fun with this program and that it runs smoothly. We couldn’t do it without them.”
The formal banner presentation will take place in December at the High School Youth Leadership Summit, conducted by the CIAC.
In 1992, as part of an effort to reach school-aged athletes, Special Olympics Connecticut formed a partnership with the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) to bring Special Olympics Unified Sports to schools across the state. Special Olympics Unified Sports® programs operate throughout the school year and closely follow the academic calendar. Events are organized in each sport season for children in grades K-12. All public and parochial schools in Connecticut are invited to participate.
The Special Olympics Unified Sports® School Program, administered by the CIAC, involves more than 3,500 athletes and athlete-partners in 200 schools across the state.