More than 500 participants from 17 countries all across the globe, traveled to be at the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools 2019 National Conference held at Olympian High School in the Sweetwater Union High School District.
Educators spent a full day at Olympian High for the “school visit” portion of the conference that began with a panel discussion moderated by Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver. Other panelists included Sweetwater District Superintendent Dr. Karen Janney, Sweetwater District Assistant Superintendent for Equity, Culture & Support Dr. Joe Fulcher, Sweetwater District Coordinator of Athletics Joe Heinz, Sweetwater District Unified Champion Schools Coordinator Valerie Ruiz and a few others.
According to Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, the Unified Champion Schools program is changing the lives of students throughout the Sweetwater Community and all of the United States by promoting inclusion and acceptance of students with and without intellectual disabilities. More than 400 middle and high school students throughout the Sweetwater District participate in the Unified Champion Schools program year around.
In 2018, the Sweetwater District was named the first Unified District in all of Southern California. “Being a Unified District is very important as it shows our commitment to creating an inclusive school culture, meeting our LCAP goals, and the inclusion of students with disabilities who, historically, is a population that is segregated on campuses.” said Valerie Separa Ruiz, Sweetwater District Unified Champion Schools Coordinator.
The Unified Sports program links developed student athletes alongside students with disabilities – as their peers. Students engage in self-advocacy, friendship, fitness and sports together, building relationships that help to change the atmosphere of competitive sports and toward inclusion.
Conference attendees, students and their families had the opportunity to attend an information fair organized by middle, high school and Southwestern College students. They also had the opportunity to watch several Unified Sports students in action during soccer games, Cross Fit activities and a culminating basketball game that was featured on the ESPN network. “Everyone who attended were able to witness social inclusion and a Unified way of life in Sweetwater,” said Ruiz. More than 280 Sweetwater District students from 10 Unified Schools participated in the games.
“It is my hope that Sweetwater was able to demonstrate that it is possible to be a Unified School District,” said Ruiz. “If not that, I hope attendees were inspired to start unified sports at their school. That they were able to see first-hand the positive impact inclusion has on students and school culture.”