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Ithaca High Named National Banner Unified Champion School

Unified basketball team at IHS pep rally
Ithaca High School Pep Rally
In recognition of its commitment to inclusion and youth leadership, Ithaca High School has recently been named a national banner Unified Champion School.

Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools is a program aimed at promoting social inclusion and acceptance through the power of sports. The program model consists of three overarching and interconnected components: Special Olympics Unified Sports, inclusive youth leadership, and whole-school engagement.

To receive national banner recognition, Unified Champion Schools must achieve ten standards of excellence based on these three components, as well as demonstrate their ability to sustain the components over time. Of the thousands of Unified Champion Schools in the country, Ithaca is one of only 155 to achieve these ten standards and receive national banner recognition this year.

“If you want to see what true acceptance and inclusion looks like, walk the halls of Ithaca High School or go to one of its Unified games,” said Special Olympics New York President and Chief Executive Officer Stacey Hengsterman. “Unified Champion Schools are changing a generation, and Ithaca has proven to be among the best of the best.”

“This national recognition for the committed and caring efforts of ICSD students and their educators brings much joy to my heart,” said Ithaca City School District Superintendent Luvelle Brown. “Now, others across the nation will have an opportunity to learn about the talents and successes of our champions."
Unified Bowling team practice
Unified Bowling Practice

In 2018, Ithaca and 15 neighboring districts partnered with Special Olympics New York and the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHAA) to bring Unified Sports to our region. Through Unified Sports, students with and without intellectual disabilities have opportunities to train and compete together on various sports teams.

During the first year of the program, Ithaca rostered a Unified basketball team and formed a Youth Activation Committee (YAC), a group of student leaders invested in enhancing the visibility of the Unified Sports program and increasing inclusion throughout the district. Thanks to the work of the YAC, Ithaca’s Unified basketball team grew from 9 students to 25 students in just one year. By 2020, with awareness and interest continuing to build, Ithaca was also able to add a Unified bowling team to its program.

Ultimately, the goal of Unified Sports is to promote social inclusion and youth leadership and to build a greater sense of community in schools. The program also helps to dismantle stereotypes and, according to Ithaca High School Master Educator for Inclusion Margie Shaw, foster a “better understanding of and compassion for students with disabilities.”
“I often hear how our partners have applied this new understanding to involve more people during their days at school: sitting with new friends during lunch, playing with friends in the quad, and even attending prom together,” said Shaw. “Seemingly small actions that have a huge impact on everyone and move our district to a more inclusive community.”

Despite last year’s school closure, members of Ithaca’s YAC and Unified teams have remained active. During the spring, they participated in weekly social inclusion challenges offered by Special Olympics New York, like the Pass It On challenge and Virtual High Five challenge, and some connected remotely through video games, phone calls, and even letters. In June, seniors on the Unified Basketball team, whose season was cut short by the closure, were honored with physically distanced senior night celebrations at their homes.

Ithaca was also one of only a few Unified programs in the state invited to participate in a virtual summit on inclusive youth leadership this summer. Zola Vesci, treasurer of the YAC, and Zea Weeks, a member of the Unified basketball team, represented Ithaca at the national summit and later discussed their experiences in an interview with Special Olympics New York.
Unified basketball senior night celebrations
Unified Basketball Senior Night Celebrations

The ability to create space for a thriving, sustainable Unified Sports program is what led to Ithaca achieving national banner recognition this year. Stephanie Valletta, Unified Sports coach and YAC advisor, explained that demonstrating the school’s commitment to inclusion, youth leadership, and whole-school engagement was “relatively straightforward” because of the hard work of the YAC and dedication of the student-athletes.
“We are so proud of the culture shift we have seen and felt in the ICSD,” said Valletta. “We know that the quest for increased inclusion goes beyond the bowling alley or the basketball court, and we hope that by earning this national recognition, more and more of our young people will continue to #choosetoinclude in our schools and community.”