“What is Unified Sports? Well, simply, it’s bringing together Special Olympics athletes and teammates without disabilities on the same sports team for training and competition.”
“What we’ve seen in the 31 years of doing Unified Sports globally is that it’s a fantastic facilitator for social inclusion. Social inclusion is really when you’re building those long, sustainable, meaningful relationships between people with and without disabilities.”
“The Unified Champion Schools program itself is comprised of three components. It’s Unified Sports, inclusive youth leadership and whole-school engagement.”
“The quality of the programming is really important to us. So, our staff here at Special Olympics Pennsylvania works really closely with those school administrators and coaches to be successfully executing each of these components of the program.”
“94% of schools who do Unified Champion Schools said that it has increased the opportunities for students with and without disabilities to work together as equals”
“So, one thing that’s important is this is not a Special Olympics team at the school. It’s 100% not that. It’s this school’s team.”
“Our goal is that we like to be in every county in the State of Pennsylvania. So right now, as I mentioned, we’re in 36. So, we’re making good progress to get there.”
“For this upcoming year, we’ve targeted five school districts in the State of Pennsylvania to really develop elementary and middle school programming. And that’ll be kind of the basis to which we start to roll out to a greater degree, that type of programming throughout the state.”
“So, we are expanding the programming into colleges throughout the state. This is a relatively new initiative for us, but we’ve got about a dozen colleges and universities that are currently participating and running some inclusive programming within their school.”
Q: Can you start by giving us a broad overview of Special Olympics? And then after that, what are your roles with the organization? But first start by just explaining in general Special Olympics and all that the organization does.
A (Michelle): I’ll get us started. I think it’s a quick introduction to Special Olympics Pennsylvania overall. We offer 22 sports and provide year-round training and competition to about 17,000 athletes throughout the state. One of the common misperceptions of Special Olympics is that it’s this one-day track and field event. There are several events like this that are hosted by schools across the state, but Special Olympics offers so much more. 2020 actually marks the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics Pennsylvania with our first games being held in May of 1970 at Westchester University. We’ve come a long way in the past 50 years, in addition to sports programming now we also offer education and training in athlete leadership, health screenings and education, Unified Sports and with that, I’m going to pass it over to Mike to talk a little bit more about unified.
A (Mike): Thanks, Michelle. I’m Mike Bovino, senior advisor with Special Olympics Pennsylvania. Unified Sports is a program with Special Olympics that’s been offered now since 1989. We celebrated our 30th anniversary for Unified Sports last year. It’s global. It has 1.4 million participants all over the world and in every country that Special Olympics has an accredited program. All 50 states here in the United States offers Unified Sports background. So, it’s a program that has grown significantly. ESPN is our global presenting sponsor. So, it’s nice to have the worldwide leader in sports to be our presenting sponsor for Unified Sports. They really see this as the future for Special Olympics. And really for the listeners, what is Unified Sports? Well, simply, it’s bringing together Special Olympics athletes and teammates without disabilities on the same sports team for training and competition.
Everybody on the team is an equal peer. I think that’s really important. The members of a Unified Sports team are equal age because we want to make sure we’re creating relationships that are meaningful and sustainable. Everybody on the team is contributing to the team through their unique talents. We can talk a little bit more about our Unified Champion Schools, we’ll be able to share with everybody how that manifested itself in the school community when everybody is treated as an equal, when you remove labels, the importance of that.
What we’ve seen in the 31 years of doing Unified Sports globally is that it’s a fantastic facilitator for social inclusion. Social inclusion is really when you’re building those long, sustainable, meaningful relationships between people with and without disabilities. That emerges when you share a commonality of experience on a Unified Sports team. You have a shared goal, you have shared responsibilities, you support each other as teammates and through that experience, what we have found over the years is that Special Olympics athletes become friends with their unified teammates. The unified teammates become very strong advocates for their Special Olympics teammates, and they’ll do things such as advocate for them in the community, open up doors for employment for people with intellectual disabilities and have the wonderful benefits of being a friend. So Unified Sports is a very powerful program for Special Olympics
Q: That actually tees right into our next question. So Unified Sports, you’ve talked about the benefits and how that works. Unified Champion Schools – can you talk a little bit more about the rigorous standards that schools must meet to achieve this designation and any of those types of considerations?
A (Michelle): Yeah. So, I’ll kind of start with just a little bit of a background on the program overall. It was a program developed by Special Olympics International about 13 years ago and really done initially in partnership with our United States Department of Education, more specifically the Office of Education. So here in PA, we’ve executed the program statewide for about seven years. We had piloted a little bit in the beginning, but really started spreading statewide about seven years ago. We’re currently in 218 schools and growing rapidly every year. So, trying to keep it growing and keeping up with the demand. So, the Unified Champion Schools program itself is comprised of three components. It’s Unified Sports, inclusive youth leadership and whole-school engagement. Mike talked a little bit about Unified Sports, but at the school level we offer unified indoor bocce as a winter sport and unified track and field as a sport in the spring.
We very strategically chose these sports to offer because they include meaningful engagement and are inclusive for all students. So, students with a variety of disabilities, really any student within the school building are able to participate in each of those sports. So, bocce and track and field. And we set up these Unified Sports, they are interscholastic sports teams within those school buildings. There is a proportional number of students with and without intellectual disabilities on those teams and they train and compete together for the duration of the season. So, it’s really our goal for them to be treated just like any other varsity sport within that school. They’re getting together and they’re training on a weekly basis we require a minimum of two trainings per week. Some are doing more, again, we require a minimum of three competitions per season. Most are doing five or six, if not some more.
So again, the schools have really taken this and run with it. In most cases we see it being just treated and really held next to all of those other varsity sports within the school building, which is exactly what we want. Then we hold a culminating championship at the end of each of the seasons. So, whether it’s a county or regional base, we have a championship for all those schools come together and compete. And the winner of that opportunity advances to our state level tournament. So, we have a great partnership with the PIAA and we hold our culminating state events in conjunction with some of their championships. So, bocce aligns with the boys and girls basketball championship, which is held at the Giant Center in Hershey, and then track and field is really a very inclusive event that we do together with them at Shippensburg University.
As I mentioned track and field is really cool because they run the 100 meter boys’ race, a 100 meter girls’ race and then a 100 meter unified race. So, we’re really fully integrated in as a part of that event, which is awesome. So, just another two components quick is inclusive youth leadership. This is a club within the school. So, it’s students with and without disabilities who are meeting regularly within a structured club environment. We do require co-governance. So, you have a unified pair. So, one student with and one student without an intellectual disability that are working together to fill those key roles, so a president role or a vice president or secretary, but that they’re really leading that group together. The main goal for them is that they are planning and conducting activities to improve their school environment for everyone.
We refer to those activities as hopeful engagements, which is the third component of the program. These are just really opportunities where they’re getting the whole school environment together to raise awareness or advocate or educate on a variety of different topics. We let them choose what’s important to them within their school community or within their school building. A good example of this, which most people are pretty familiar with, is a Spread the Word inclusion campaign. It used to be referred to as Spread the Word to End the Word, now it has transitioned over to Spread the Word Inclusion.
But again, just a student run campaign, which really helps everyone better understand the importance of just being inclusive and treating everyone with respect. So, those are really the three areas that we encourage and enforce within each of the schools. The quality of the programming is really important to us. So, our staff here at Special Olympics Pennsylvania works really closely with those school administrators and coaches to be successfully executing each of these components of the program. Mike will give us a little bit more about some of the staff and then some of our best of the best.
A (Mike): Yeah, sounds great, Michelle. So, this program is global now. Unified Champion Schools is a program that’s done in partnership with the U.S Department of Education for the past 13 years. It’s been very popular. We currently reach almost 300,000 students in every state in the United States, but one, we won’t tattle on the one state that’s not doing it. Well, we’ll protect their identity, but every state, but one in the United States is doing Unified Champion Schools programming. And again, it’s been a formalized program for 13 years. It’s also been shown through our research partner at the University of Massachusetts Boston, the impact that it has on school communities, which we’ll talk about in a little bit. So, I think the other thing that’s important here is knowing that the programming that Michelle just laid out when all three of those components are done well, it has a measurable impact on school climate and social inclusion and changing attitudes.
It’s one of the reasons why so many different state education departments partner with our Special Olympics state programs. Unified Champion School is also now being done throughout the world. So, some really excellent examples of governments, such as in Europe, where their entire school systems now are adopting Unified Champion Schools. Probably one of the more compelling stories is in the United Arab Emirates, where we held our 2019 Special Olympics World Games, the government for the UAE, as part of their World Games legacy committed to implementing Unified Champion Schools programming in every single school in that country. Pretty amazing for full inclusion in the Middle East and some of the lessons that are being taught and learned. It really stands as a beacon for the possibilities of what inclusion can produce through our young people. So, right now they’re well on their way to full implementation in every school in United Arab Emirates.
We’re also seeing it in Latin America, Africa, Europe and East Asia, the implementation of Unified Champion Schools programming. Here in Pennsylvania this year, we’ll be partnering with close to 240 schools in 36 counties throughout the state of Pennsylvania. We’re very excited about that and working closely with the schools and we partner very closely with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and in particular, the Bureau of Education and Carole Clancy have been tremendous advocates for this program because they see the value in promoting inclusion and bringing school communities together around a commonality of valuing diversity, respect, changing attitudes and helping students really develop skills that are going to be useful to them in their community and post-secondary careers. So, we partnered closely with the Bureau of Special Education, and we also partner very closely with the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, or the PIAA, and they have embraced the program as well.
Dr. Lombardi has said repeatedly how much he in particular loves the impact this program has on not only special education students and giving them an opportunity to have a true, meaningful interscholastic sport experience. He’s also been very much happy to see students without disabilities who have not had the opportunity to participate in an interscholastic sport experience to be able to do so. So, it’s one of the things of the PIAA they really want to focus on how do they really reach more students to provide them with all the great qualities of interscholastic sports, such as leadership development and teamwork and sportsmanship. So again, we work very closely with the PIAA. We partner with them and Special Olympics Pennsylvania is regarded as the governing body for interscholastic Unified Sports for all the high schools that we work with throughout the State of Pennsylvania.
One last thing I wanted to add is there is a recognition for the best of the best around the country that are known as National Banner Unified Champion Schools. There are 10 rigorous standards that a school needs to meet. Then there’s a review process, including a review committee at the national level, that looks at all the applications and then determines which schools will receive this prestigious honor.
I’m happy to share that this year we had the most number of schools so far to date receive the honor, we have 10 schools that have been acknowledged as National Banner Unified Champion Schools. We just want to do a quick shout out to them – Central York High School and Dallastown High School both in York County; Franklin Regional and Norwin High Schools in Westmoreland County; Pennridge High School in Bucks County; Springfield Township and Upper Merion High School in Montgomery County; and Sun Valley High School in Delaware County. This year, we had our very first middle school received the distinction with CCA Baldi Middle School in Philadelphia. We also had our very first college and university be honored. And that’s our friends at Slippery Rock University. So, we have 17 schools that have received this honor over the years, and we’re proud of every single one of them.
Q: Awesome. Thank you for that. So I heard you say, and there’s obviously a lot of mention of the word inclusion, and you touched upon this in some of what you said, but what lessons can school communities teach their students by focusing on inclusion?
A (Mike): It’s a great question. And so really there’s an impact on school communities that we see throughout all of our schools that we partner with. There’s very specific individual benefits as well that my friend Michelle is going to share with you, but as it relates to the school community, right now at this place in time, we really do need unity and we need unified, but we’ve needed it for a long time. This is not anything new. It’s something that we want to teach our students, the value of diversity. And looking at individuals as people first and not looking at labels, not having preconceptions about somebody’s abilities or weaknesses or strengths based upon a label. And still inclusion is powerful because it brings together a school community in a way where we celebrate the uniqueness that every student has. One of the things that we’ve been very pleased to see nationally is the impact that implementation of Unified Champion Schools has in the way students treat each other.
So, a couple of compelling statistics I’d love to share – 94% of schools who do Unified Champion Schools said that it has increased the opportunities for students with and without disabilities to work together as equals. Think about that. So, 94% of our schools are seeing that throughout the country, 94% have said that involvement in Unified Sports makes them healthier. And people with intellectual disabilities face very serious health challenges. They lead more, unfortunately more sedentary, inactive lives, which leads to twice as many being obese or overweight than the general population. They are at a risk of five times greater for diabetes, and that cumulative impact and effect of all these preventable health issues leads to a lifespan that’s 16 years shorter. If you have an intellectual disability than if you are somebody who does not have a disability, just think about that.
It’s a harrowing statistic that a lot of these health metrics can be changed with fitness, healthy living and sports. So, we start in the schools. By getting our education students involved in sports, and they enjoy that, then they come out of the schools and there’s opportunities for them to participate in Special Olympics programs that offer also offers sports. The last statistic that I want to share is that we want to reduce bullying and teasing. And sadly, if you have a disability, all the national statistics bear this out, you’re two to three times more likely to be a victim of bullying or teasing or offensive language used towards you. And in the University of Massachusetts research, what they found is that 92% of all of our schools that do UCS credit UCS programming with reducing bullying and teasing in their schools. So again, very powerful in terms of how this program can really change the dynamics in a school building. Michelle, would you like to share the impact that it has on the individual students?
A (Michelle): Yeah, sure. I think we’ve seen again so much of this that we just hear through testimonials and things like that coming from whether it’s students themselves or teachers or even parents, but what this program does is it really just overall brings students together and it promotes social inclusion really for all students within that school building. When a group of students sees individuals walking down the hall together or high-fiving or sitting down at the lunch table together, it really has a big impact, not only on just those students, but on really the entire student body within that school. There was a cool story we had a pair of students from Bald Eagle High School who were selected as our Unified Pair of the Year, this year for Special Olympics Pennsylvania. And one of the cool stories we got from it was actually a history class.
The history teacher had shared with us that those two students decided they had met as freshmen. And started together on the bocce team. So, they had decided to take this history class together in their senior year. She had just shared the impact that the two of them, the dynamic that they had, and she would say they wouldn’t always agree on things, but they’d always find common ground. And the impact that their relationship actually had on the rest of the students in that class was probably the most impactful thing that happened. She’s like, “I think they learned more from watching these two students and just the dynamic between them in my class this year than they actually learned from me.”
So, but it’s things like that, that we see happening all throughout the state. We know Mike touched on it a little bit, but we know what participation in interscholastic sports and athletics, how that benefits students and character development and leadership and fitness and teamwork, self-esteem. So, we’re now giving all of these individuals within a school building through Unified Sports, the opportunity to participate in these opportunities. And again, for both students with and without intellectual disability.
So, it impacts that student body as a whole, not just an individual subgroup of students. And then being a member of a team, I mean, so many of us grew up and it was such an impactful piece of our lives playing sports, or just being a member of a team together and really develop those meaningful and true relationships. And when we see these individuals able to participate together, have shared experiences, it really helps create that bond. And it creates memories that last a lifetime. You really do see lifetime friendship happening through unified sports in general, particularly within the school programs as well. So, just a lot of really great stories that have come out of this. And Mike, I didn’t know if you had any additional stories that you’d like to share, but it’s really impactful.
A (Mike): Yeah, I think you did a great job in Michelle. The only thing I was going to add, and Michelle touched upon that both Michelle and I played sports growing up in high school, Michelle had a college career. I didn’t. So, she actually was able to have that experience as well, but the power for a special education student to represent their schools as a varsity athlete. So, one thing that’s important is this is not a Special Olympics team at the school. It’s 100% not that. It’s this school’s team. And so, one of the stories Michelle was kind of alluding to is in our very first year of doing this with this school at Souderton, a mom shared with us that when her son Kevin was born, down syndrome, she just felt like she wanted to give Kevin every opportunity that his older siblings had.
All of his older siblings played on a varsity team. Prior to Unified Champion Schools that didn’t exist for Kevin. There were no opportunities for him to be on the team. And so, we brought unified track and field to Souderton High School. So, Kevin is wearing the Souderton High School singlet proudly representing Souderton High school and had the same experience that his older siblings had when they played varsity sports. Well at the end of the first year, and it’s a spring sport in the summertime, the mom Nancy gets a knock on the door and it’s from Kevin’s teammates.
And they say to her, “Ms. Lasinski, is Kevin here? We’re going out to Chick-fil-A and we love Kevin to come join us.” And Kevin comes, racing out of the room, goes flying out the door, they go to Chick-fil-A and then they start to every week get together for Chick-fil-A. Well, what’s powerful about that is what Nancy shared with us: “As a mom, I’ve been lucky that in all the years, Kevin has gone to school he’s always been accepted and respected and in a very, very inclusive school community like Souderton, they love him and he gets all the support. But for the very first time in Kevin’s life, I had somebody come to the door, knock on the door, somebody who didn’t have a disability and asked for Kevin to come and join them for lunch as an equal peer. And that hadn’t happened before.”
Q: So, what is your goal for the future of this program? What do you imagine is on the horizon?
A (Mike): Well, I’ll tell you the only thing that stops us from going to more schools is a pragmatic reality of funding and personnel, right? Michelle and I would love to be at every school in the State of Pennsylvania. We just don’t have the staffing nor the funding support. So, we’re lucky to have some great support from the U.S Department of Education and the Bureau of Education. We want to both do a shout out to them because they’ve been fantastic of giving us some funding. And then our development team, we raised money through a variety of different sources to fund the program. But our goal is that we like to be in every county in the State of Pennsylvania. So right now, as I mentioned, we’re in 36. So, we’re making good progress to get there. And we are strategical right now based upon our funding is that we’re going to add 40 new schools per year, over the next four years as part of our strategic plan.
Now, if we run into a very generous benefactor who would like to give us a million dollars, we could increase the number of schools from more than 40 a year, but based upon our budget projections, that’s where we’re at right now is 40 per year over the next four years to get us to 365 schools throughout the State of Pennsylvania. Where we are really seeing a shift is we have focused primarily on high schools, for a variety of different reasons, but our relationship with the PIAA and we felt it was really important to be able to start with high schools first. So, what we’re really going to shift is starting this year, we’re starting to work with elementary schools and middle schools to bring the programming there. And now it looks a little bit different than high schools because in elementary schools, obviously there’s no interscholastic sports.
So, we’re doing programs like inclusive young athletes, which has been a very successful program that develops motor skills and socialization skills designed for participants ages two to seven years of age. So, that’s what we’re looking at that for our elementary school programming. For middle school programming, we have things like Unified Intramurals or Unified Physical Education. So, we’re integrating again, a lot of Unified Champion Schools programming within that type of delivery mechanism.
They will still be the other two components that we talked about in terms of inclusive youth leadership. But again, for elementary school looks a lot different than in high schools and the middle school. It’s a lot different as well. So middle school is still a club, elementary schools is still more teacher led, but you’re teaching again at an early age, the value of leadership and working together and collaborating together. So, we’re now infusing that. For this upcoming year, we’ve targeted five school districts in the State of Pennsylvania to really develop elementary and middle school programming. And that’ll be kind of the basis to which we start to roll out to a greater degree, that type of programming throughout the state. Michelle, did you want to add a little bit more about, what we’re doing? We talked a little bit about elementary and middle schools, but in additives, some exciting things happening for our older participants.
A (Michelle): Yeah. So, the span runs K through college, right? That’s how we like to look at our Unified Champion School programming. So, we are expanding the programming into colleges throughout the state. This is a relatively new initiative for us, but we’ve got about a dozen colleges and universities that are currently participating and running some inclusive programming within their school. Mike had mentioned Slippery Rock was our first university to get to that national banner standard. They’re one of the best that we have. We’ve also named them as a Center of Unified Excellence here in the State of Pennsylvania. And they’ve done some really cool things, two of which they have a Unified Intramural program. So that folds right into their Slippery Rock intramural program as part of their recreation department there, as well as the Unified Fitness Program that they do on their campus.
And throughout this so they include individuals from on campus that are part of their Rock Life transition program, but they also work really closely with our Special Olympics community-based program to bring some local athletes on campus to participate. And just talking to that as, as we continue to try to build this program, this Unified Champion Schools program across the state, one of our biggest goals is really transitioning those athletes from those well, athletes and partners really, from those school-based program into some of our community-based programming. So, every county, and there are some combined counties, but we’ve got 65 Special Olympics programs that are county based throughout the state. Most of which are a hundred percent volunteer run, but that’s really the grassroots of what this organization is all about. And where the magic happens and it’s like I said, I had alluded to earlier, we offer three seasons of sports programming.
So, we do fall, winter, spring in 22 different sports across the state. I think a lot of our challenges with the some of our school-based athletes and the Unified Champion Schools program has been just educating them of these opportunities that there are available outside of school. So again, I think this is just a good avenue, right? And just hope that some of your listeners are hearing this, that maybe it’s something they’re learning and that they go and check out and see some of those different opportunities that are available within their local community program.
Q: So, if a school district or school community is interested in learning more about the unified champion schools program, where should they go for that information?
A (Mike): Yeah, so and that we have a very informative website, so specialolympicspa.org. So, if they go to the Special Olympics Pennsylvania website, they will find under this category called More than Sports that they click on that they’ll see Unified Champion Schools, and it’ll take them to the web pages that will give them very specific information about the program as well as an opportunity to submit interest if they’re like to learn more, and then we do an outreach to the schools.
They will tell you right now we have 65 schools that are on the waiting list for next year. So, if you do the math, we’re at 40 now, but it doesn’t mean that all 65 will say yes, and it doesn’t mean that things work out. So, we’re definitely always looking for more schools. We do grow regionally. So, we try to look at areas of the state. So, we don’t have, a school that’s by itself. We need to make sure that they’re competing against other schools. So, whenever we grow, we have to ensure that we have at least three, minimum of three and preferably four schools in a region before we commit to a new county. So, part of that goes hand in hand with our growth strategies.
Michelle Boone has vast sport event planning and program management experience. She completed her undergraduate work at Lock Haven University and obtained a Master’s Degree in Sport Management from University of San Francisco. Before coming to SOPA in 2014, Michelle worked in event planning for CBS Sports and Northeast Conference (DI College athletics). As the Vice President for Sports with Special Olympics PA, Michelle oversees all state level competitions, coach training and education and Unified Champion Schools initiative.
Mike Bovino has been Senior Advisor for Special Olympics PA since July, 2014. His role includes work in co-leading the Unified Champion Schools program, fundraising, organizational development, and other initiatives, as well as contributing to global and national Unified Sports development. Mike’s background also consists of leadership positions with Special Olympics International, as well as Special Olympics programs in Maryland and the District of Columbia, since 1987. Additionally, he has consulted with the United States Basketball League, National Breast Cancer Coalition, Roberto Clemente Foundation, and other nonprofits and sports organizations. Mike also is a proud graduate of the University of Michigan.