ASHLAND – Three years ago, the Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools’ special education department launched an initiative to bring unified sports to its students. That hard work has paid off as the school district has received special recognition on a national level.
Special Olympics declared Ashland-Greenwood an official Special Olympics national banner Unified Champion School. The school was informed by a letter from Chairman Timothy Shriver and Tony Wyllie, regional president and managing director of Special Olympics North America.
Under the direction of Kristin Fangmeyer, director of student services and special education coordinator, Ashland-Greenwood has hosted two unified track meets and one unified football game.
The first track meet in 2018 was reportedly the first of its kind in the state. Teams made up of students in grades 6 to 12 from Wahoo, Waverly, Raymond Central, Louisville, Milford, Conestoga and Malcolm came to Ashland to compete. Last year Nebraska City joined the meet.
In 2019, Ashland-Greenwood hosted Auburn in the school’s first unified football game, held before the varsity football contest. The teams were cheered on by the varsity athletes and a stadium full of fans.
Last Friday, the students were scheduled to participate in a unified football game at Milford, but it has been postponed.
According to Special Olympics, about 1.4 million people worldwide take part in Unified Sports, breaking down stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities in a really fun way. During unified sports competition, a Special Olympics athlete is paired with another student or adult, creating a unified partnership that works together during each event.
In the letter, Shriver and Wyllie complimented the district on its commitment to demonstrate inclusion.
“Your school community has shown impressive determination and is helping us move towards our collective goal of creating a truly ‘unified generation’ of young people who embrace differences and lead social change,” they wrote. “You are literally redefining the future as you make your communities more inclusive of people with intellectual disabilities, and in doing so, making the world a more accepting place for all.”
Fangmeyer said the most exciting and unique part of this honor is that the people that live in and around Ashland, Greenwood and the other communities that make up the school district support the unified sports programs.
“The community has been incredibly supportive, so while this honor and banner will be for the school, we want to make sure it is celebrated with everyone,” she said.
Fangmeyer said only five Nebraska schools had been given this honor prior to this year, and Ashland-Greenwood is the first “small school” to be receive the recognition. The school district went through an application process that requires successful demonstration of 10 national standards.
These standards include inclusive youth leadership, where the school formed a leadership team made up of students with and without disabilities who help plan events like the track meets.
The school participated in the Spread the Word campaign and found ways to embed inclusion in the middle school/high school Bluejay rallies, which helped them meet the whole school engagement standard, Fangmeyer said.
The school must also show that ensuring inclusion will be an ongoing effort, something they have achieved by creating a sustainability plan, according to Fangmeyer.
“Those standards are what we have been working on for the last three years, so a lot of time and effort has been put forth to make this happen,” she added.
Shriver and his wife, Linda Potter, attended the last unified track meet hosted in Ashland in 2019. He is the son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics. He leads the international board of directors.
Shriver and Wyllie went on to say they would like to personally challenge the school district to go even further to promote inclusion.
“Continue to support the innovative minds of youth and adults in your school and be leaders in inclusion in your community,” they wrote.
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