NORMAL – When we were in grade school, we all sought to be considered part of the group of kids we had classes with. For some students, fitting right in happened almost immediately. But for kids with developmental disabilities, sometimes, those youngsters find fitting in difficult because other kids aren’t able to relate or made fun of them. But youngsters at Parkside Elementary School, through programs at Parkside Elementary School, are finding themselves fitting right in thanks to Special Olympics.

Parkside Elementary was named one of just four National Unified Champion Schools in the State of Illinois, celebrating the honor at an assembly in the school gym on Oct. 24. Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program is an all-ages based program supported by the Federal Department of Education. A primary goal of the program is to motivate young people and give them tools, skills, and opportunities to help change their schools to have a genuine culture of inclusiveness, according to the national office of Special Olympics.

Unified schools have three main goals as set by Special Olympics: Inclusive sports; Youth leadership and advocacy; And Engagement in the program on the part of the whole school. At this assembly, Parkside Elementary was awarded a banner signifying the school’s commitment toward those goals.

In addition to the school’s 290 students, a number of former staff members and students who were part of the program in the past were invited to return to cerebrate receiving the honor. Also, a group of students who now attend neighboring Parkside Junior High School and were part of the program at the grade school in the past were invited to attend the celebration.

“It’s a tremendous honor for Parkside and we’re really proud of them,” stated Marty Hickman, Chief Operating Officer for Special Olympics Illinois, who represented the organization at this function. “They have exhibited all the things you would want a school to exhibit with regard to inclusion and helping students with intellectual disabilities to be part of their school community.”

A total of four schools in Illinois were receiving this honor and Parkside is the only elementary school in the State to claim the honor. The others are two high schools and a junior high school. There are a total of 400 schools Statewide which participate in the Young Athletes Program. Schools applied for the honor and needed to meet 10 excellence standards to qualify to be awarded the national recognition.

The program has been in place for 11 years, Hickman said, adding, “It creates an environment in this school where students with intellectual disabilities are more accepted, more included, and can have a richer and more full elementary school experience because of how they’re treated here.”

Fifth graders serve as peer coaches for students in Special Olympics’ Young Athletes Program, a program that involves students who are younger than age 8, explained Kathy O’Connell, Special Education physical education teacher at both the grade school and PJHS. The next step for athletes once they become 8-years-old is to be eligible to participate in Special Olympics programs and events. The Young Athletes Program has been available at the school for 13 years, O’Connell added.

O’Connell said students are taught lessons in the importance of respect toward people with disabilities. Because she teaches at PJHS, O’Connell sees the lessons at the grade school sticking with kids once they move on to secondary education. “They just grow up with it,” she said. “It just flows from one school to the other.”

To celebrate the accomplishment, the assembly’s audience included current and former students who have been involved in the Unified Sports Programs established at the school through Special Olympics, as well as hearing from some of those people.

Among the speakers were former athletes in both the Young Athletes or Unified Sports Program at the grade school. Eighteen year old Brandon Lake and his mother, Heather. Heather recounted for the audience that her son was a participant in the Young Athletes program starting at age five, and she has kept the first shirt he ever got when he entered the program at that time.

She admitted she was “an overwhelmed mama who was new to the world of disabilities” at the time she and her son came to see O’Connell about Brandon getting to be part of the program. For the Lake family, “Young Athletes Program line of Special Olympics events that Brandon participated over the years,” Heather Lake said. “But for me, personally, it marked a point in time where we were actually empowered to embrace our son’s strengths rather than his deficits.”

The assembly also heard from other parents and teammates in the Unified program who say they have learned from the experience.

Sean Foster, principal of Bloomington Central Catholic High School, also addressed the gathering, saying, “We are here to congratulate you on your accomplishment. It’s really important to have schools and organizations that partner together to help one another and serve one another. He noted that seniors at his school spend one of the last days of their high school career helping with the Young Athletes program. “By helping with this program, our students receive so much more in return.”

Before the program closed, Hickman spoke just before the banner with the national honor was presented. “I want you to understand not every school is able to be a national banner Unified Champion School,” he told the gathering. “A Special Olympics Unified Champion School has an inclusive school climate and exudes a sense of collaboration, engagement, and respect for all members of the student body and staff. “

With that, and after the presentation, school employees, members of the school’s Young Athletes Program, Special Olympics athletes, and coaches gathered around the banner as family and friends closed out the proceedings taking pictures with the newly-attained banner.

This entry was posted on Monday, October 28th, 2019 at 10:39 pm and is filed under Special Olympics, The Normalite, Unit 5. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

Comments are closed.