Special Olympics recognize Lawrence High School for its unified sports program

photo by: Contributed photo

Lawrence High School's unified sports basketball team in 2018.

Lawrence High School has been recognized for its sports program that aims to be inclusive and provides students with disabilities opportunities to compete.

The Special Olympics recently named LHS a Unified Champion School, an honor bestowed on schools that meet the organization’s standards of excellence that focus on inclusive environments for students with disabilities. One of the primary standards required for the award is a school offering sports where students with and without disabilities train and compete as teammates.

LHS does that with its unified sports program, which has been operating for the last five years, said Susan Micka, an LHS interpersonal skills teacher and coach for the program. The sports program is associated with the school’s interpersonal skills class, also known as IPS, which is a leadership course where special needs and general population students work on projects together.

“We are off-the-charts excited,” Micka said about the recognition. “We’ve met the requirements the last few years, so that made us feel really good to push it forward for national recognition.”

The LHS program currently offers basketball and soccer teams that compete against other area high schools with unified sports, Micka said. The program operates multiple teams for each sport with varying levels of competitiveness and currently averages about 30 students per sport.

Micka said the program is important because research shows that students who participate in unified sports programs can see more growth in their social and athletic skills. She said that shows “inclusion wins.”

Hundreds of schools across the country have been named Unified Champion Schools, but only six are from Kansas. LHS was joined by Shawnee Mission Northwest High School in being inducted into the program this year, according to the Special Olympics website.

To be inducted, the LHS program had to meet a list of criteria, including having its unified sports program recognized by the school. Micka said a way the LHS recognized its program was when it began allowing athletes in the program to earn varsity letters in 2019.

Other requirements include demonstrating “whole school engagement,” which LHS did through its school-wide “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign. That campaign aimed to educate students to not use the “R-word,” a derogatory term for people with intellectual disabilities.

Another engagement event was the program’s Polar Plunge, where students and staff jumped into a pool in the middle of winter to raise money for the Special Olympics. The program raised more than $2,500 in February through the event, which saw about 20 staff and students volunteer to “take the plunge,” Micka said.

The Unified Champion School recognition lasts for four years and the school is expected to reapply to continue it. Julie Boyle, a spokesperson for the Lawrence school district, said the school district is proud of the LHS program for receiving the recognition.

“The district is Chesty Lion proud of Lawrence High’s commitment to providing a welcoming school environment for all students and staff,” Boyle said in an email. “While the Unified Sports and IPS programs provide leadership in this area, this national honor recognizes their schoolwide efforts to support inclusion.”

In addition to the school’s recognition, Boyle said LHS students Gracie Flanagan and Katherine Stineman have been selected to represent Kansas as U.S. Youth Ambassadors for Special Olympics North America. The ambassador program is a group of 23 youth leaders with and without intellectual disabilities who are aiming to make the country more inclusive.

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