Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Unified Teams Take Special Olympics Approach to School Sports

Not long ago, high school was a lonesome place for Shane Powell. A quiet, gangly 17-year-old, he could not help noticing the whispers in the hallways when he walked past, classmates poking fun at him. Matt Nager for The New York Times Unified sports teams combine special-needs students, like Powell, a 17-year-old junior who is cognitively delayed, and general-education students. “I was picked on,” said Powell, who is cognitively delayed and speaks in short, soft bursts. “I felt very sad.” These days, Powell is a junior basketball star at Grandview, a sprawling public high school of 2,600 students near Denver, and he prefers to be called Big Shane, a nickname reinforced by his 6-foot-4 beanpole frame. Through a collaboration with the Special Olympics, Powell and nearly two dozen other special education students participate on basketball and cheerleading squads at Grandview. They not only take part in school competitions, but also team up with general education students, called partner athletes. At Grandview, these unified teams are upending high school’s archetypal and often cruel social order. Largely invisible in the past, special education students now slap hands with lettermen in the hallways, chat with new friends and live a high school existence that “feels normal,” said one parent, Kelly Shearer. Kurt Wollenweber, Grandview’s principal, said: “Unified has transformed the culture of this school. It was almost as if these kids weren’t noticed before we began doing this. I don’t think anyone realized how powerful they are.”
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