A few months ago, one of the assistant principals at Overland High in Aurora, Colo., told me some moving stories about the effects of Unified Sports teams at Overland and other schools where he’s worked. These teams mix students with intellectual disabilities and their classmates.
There was the varsity basketball player who wasn’t able to practice with both his varsity team and the Unified team. So he quit varsity basketball.
And there was another student gave up his spot in the graduation ceremony to sit with a student with an intellectual disability he’d become friends with because they played on the same Unified team.
I also talked to some Overland students who told me, as I reported here, that for the first time, they became friends with students who attend the same school, but mostly in separate classes.
So are the kids at Overland High, in Aurora, Colo., particularly amazing? Nicer than the rest of the high schools on the planet, where I am sure there there are mean girls and social cliques and bullies for whom no target is too fragile?
“High school is still high school: People can be mean,” Assistant Principal Jon Hoerl told me.
When his wife unveiled a Unified Sports version of a cheerleading squad at Grandview High School during the 2010-11 school year, he held his breath.
“This is going to be really good—or really bad,” he remembers thinking.
The next week, he saw students with disabilities on the squad get high-fives in the hallways from classmates, simple interactions that hadn’t happened before.
Will the friendships students make this way last forever? Tumaini Mporampora, who told me she bonded with girls on the Unified Sports dance squad, had to think hard when I asked her the spelling of one of the girl’s names.
But maybe some of the intangible lessons students learn will last longer: Well after the dance squad had performed for the last time, Tumaini, teammate Lane Brazeel, and other students created a campaign to raise fellow students’ awareness about the derogatory nature of the R-word—"retard.”
“It’s not just about Unified Sports,” Lane. “It’s about changing old habits.”
Unified Sports track team member Christon Watkins practices for an upcoming meet at Overland High School in Aurora, Colo.—Nathan W. Armes for Education Week
A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.