UNITED

Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools National Conference features all encompassing team concept

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Bos Poderick, 13, competes with his teammates from Hilltop Middle School during the 2019 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools National Conference on Feb. 6 at Olympian High School.

Bos Poderick, 13, competed on the soccer field at Olympian High School with his teammates from Hilltop Middle School on Feb 6.

Bos was a focal point of his team’s offense, and he went up and down the field taking multiple shots on goal.

He also happened to be in a wheelchair.

The game against Eastlake Middle School was part of the 2019 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools National Conference at OHS, and an example of Unified Sports, which brings together students with special needs and disabilities to compete alongside non-disabled partners, who help with training and competition.

Special Olympics representatives, parents, teachers and supporters from all over the world packed into the OHS gymnasium to witness a panel of 10 Sweetwater Union High School District administrators and staff discuss what it means to be a Unified district.

The panel included SUHSD Superintendent Dr. Karen Janney, who said the district is dedicated to being a Unified district and realizes the impact that it has.

“We believe that involving our students in these ideas and activities will impact our community, the county, the state, the United States and the world,” she said.
SUHSD was chosen to host the annual conference after it was named the first Unified District in Southern California in 2018 with 20 of 23 schools fulfilling the requirement of having unified sports, youth leadership and whole school engagement.

Valerie Ruiz, a special education teacher on special assignment for SUHSD and the Sweetwater District Unified Champion Schools coordinator, helped put together the event, and said she was inspired by all of the support.

“When I come into a room with all this passion, and all this belief that all our students can play sports … can be included, how can you say no to that?” she said.

While an Olympic-style fair took place outside, a basketball game, appropriately called the Unified Battle of the O’s, was to take place inside the gymnasium.

Dr. Joe Fulcher, an assistant superintendent for equity, culture and support services for SUHSD, said there are many aspects of diversity within the district, and the goal is to make sure everyone feels supported.

“When we talk about diversity in this district, it’s not just about race, it’s not just about ethnicity, it’s also about gender, it’s about ability and it’s about skill,” he said. “We’re not perfect, but we certainly want to make sure that anyone who walks through those doors, anybody feels welcome, feels like they belong and they feel respected.”

Along with basketball and soccer, the student athletes will also compete in track and field activities and physical training.

Joe Heinz, SUHSD coordinator of athletics, said it is a good thing the school district is starting to put more emphasis on inclusion through other things outside of just academics.

“There was a time not too long ago, and maybe it’s the same in some districts throughout the country, that the benchmark for our school was a number, an API score,” he said. “Not taking anything away from the importance of academic achievement, those standards, those expectations are still there. We’ve just started looking at the whole person.”

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