The partnership between the Kent School District and Special Olympics of Washington is in the midst of its third year, and the two entities are working to emphasize inclusion and community from 12th grade to 1st grade.
The district’s annual Pack the Gym event — which brings students and athletes with intellectual disabilities together — has been successful at doing just that by creating a positive environment for these athletes.
“The goal is to have all 44 Kent School District schools to be unified champion schools,” said Emily Carter, manager of Unified Champion City Schools. “Kent School District is a perfect example of a partnership. They are truly coming alongside us with our work … I’m bringing strategies and ideas and they are taking those ideas and running with them and building off of it in ways that I could never imagine.”
The Kent School District is working alongside Special Olympics Washington to bring unified athletics to all Kent schools. The grant provided to KSD is through Special Olympics Washington is funded by the Department of Education and given to Special Olympics North America.
Special Olympics Washington uses money from the Unified Champions City School Grant to support the Kent School District.
“The grant’s purpose is around supporting those furthest away from educational justice. Supporting urban areas, acknowledging they have additional barriers and further supporting their inclusive efforts through the lens of unified champion schools,” Carter said.
KSD was ahead of the curve when it came to inclusivity in the eyes of Special Olympics of Washington. That made the partnership even more of a no-brainer, “We saw the Kent School District already doing some really great things with unified champion schools,” Carter said.
The KSD side of it started with Brian Smith, current director of athletics and activities, whom Carter couldn’t give enough love to: “Brian is a huge advocate of Special Olympics and Unified Champion Schools. He has done great work not only within KSD, but other school districts … A lot of this started with him,” Carter said.
Smith had received grant money from outside of Special Olympics of Washington to help fund high school unified athletics coaches, a big step toward building programs.
At the middle school level the program looks fairly similar to that at the high school level. The same three components are essential to becoming a unified champion school, but with a bit more help from administrators.
For the youngsters at elementary schools and even before elementary school, there is a place for those kids to get active. There is a 2-year-old to 7-year-old curriculum as opposed to a strategy at the older age group. The goal is to start “developing the skills of athletics. Landing, jumping, running and playing, finding joy in activity and movement,” Carter said.
Families with kids in this age group usually are just getting their diagnosis: “It is a really unique lens and good level set for families who are re-framing what the future looks like for their child. Seeing that they can be included in with their peers,” Carter said.
Having a program where kids from 2-years-old to graduation interact with each other and participate in sports, the differences can be celebrated, if they are even noticed.
“If we build that full-throughline. You catch everyone before they know there is a difference. You get to teach them that there are differences, but they should be celebrated,” Carter said.
Martin Sortun Elementary has taken the Unified Champion School model to a new level. In its unified fitness program, there are 120 students participating in a school that has about 200 students, according to Carter. Sunrise Elementary has a unified ballroom dancing group fueled by Assistant Principal Khadijah Al-Shami who has a passion for dance. “They’re having an after-school dance program and bring in a ballroom dance instructor … Then they’ll have a showcase at the end of it,” Carter said.
Being a coach of one of these unified programs is intrinsically important to the program. Carter doesn’t choose the coaches — it is up to the schools, but she recommends looking outside of the special education department.
“I feel like there needs to be a good mix of those who are working within the special education department and those in the general education department to come alongside and coach together… If we can bring together special education and general education educators, we can bring both their passions and students that they have relationships with,” Carter said.
Kent has been a standout in leading the way for how be a model unified champion school. Federal Way Public Schools competes in traditional athletics where special education students compete against each other. Auburn School District reached out to Special Olympics Washington following “Pack the Gym” this year. As it sits right now, Special Olympics Washington supports 141 schools across the state.