San Benito High School was recently notified that it is one of 68 schools nationwide and one of just three in California to be named a Special Olympics National Banner Unified Champion School for demonstrating an ongoing commitment to inclusion. For the past four years, SBHS has been recognized as a Unified Champion School, but the national recognition is a first.
According to the Special Olympics, a Unified Champion School has “an inclusive school climate and exudes a sense of collaboration, engagement and respect for all members of the student body and staff.” Schools that receive national banner recognition, as SBHS has this year, have “demonstrated a commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 national standards of excellence” developed by a national panel of leaders from Special Olympics and the education community. The expectation of this recognition is that the 10 standards are “continuously being met, year after year.”
Among the standards is a Special Olympics Unified Sports program, in which students with and without disabilities train and compete as teammates. San Benito High School offers unified soccer, basketball and cheer teams, and offers leadership opportunities for general education students who serve as student coaches and support staff for Unified Sports teams, Circle of Friends officers and members, peer helpers, and coordinators of the annual Unified Prom.
Cassandra Guerrero, the Special Education Program Specialist at SBHS, noted that this is the fifth year in a row the school has been recognized as a Unified Champion School, which she said acknowledges the school’s “rich history of inclusion.”
Dr. Paulette Cobb, San Benito High School District’s director of specialized student services and special education, said the National Unified Champion recognition “means so much to our students because it is a reflection of our entire school community unifying and supporting strong inclusionary practices for our students and adults.” The designation “is not easily achieved,” Dr. Cobb added. “It takes time and commitment and our community should be very proud of providing opportunities for students in sports, in relationship-building, and in learning to work together in so many positive ways.”
Part of the school’s inclusion program, the annual Gifted Games, which provides an opportunity for students with disabilities to participate in athletic events in a non-competitive atmosphere, started in 2005 with the SBHS Life Skills program and later expanded to include all Hollister School District Schools and others from San Benito County. In 2011, the Games expanded once more to include all preschool through high school-aged students in San Benito County and the Gilroy Unified School District.
Circle of Friends
For 12 years at SBHS, Circle of Friends has provided social inclusion opportunities, pairing special-needs students with general education students so they can practice social skills and feel accepted on campus. Education Specialist and Circle of Friends Co-Adviser Breanna Brooks, an SBHS alumna, said she knew as a student that the school was “a special place.” “The inclusion practices on campus made it the best place to come to school and now make it the best place to work.”
Brooks said she was particularly proud of the Circle of Friends Club officers, including Lynnzi Weisner, Mia Villegas, Maraya Royster, Andrew Minana and Anthony Toledano, who continued to foster the club’s spirit of inclusion during the pandemic and remote instruction, including coordinating virtual workouts for the school’s Unified Sports program.
“They had live and pre-recorded workouts and met with Special Olympics representatives throughout the year,” she said. “The officers kept our athletes engaged and moving through trying times. I am so thankful for their dedication!”
The Student Perspective
Circle of Friends President Mia Villegas said the group is “a great way to include all those that are involved in our Life Skills program and connect them with those in the general student population. It’s important that we find a common interest with these students because it helps with their people skills and their learning of essential skills.” She said she got involved “because I always valued inclusion and was interested in understanding some of the difficulties these students have.”
Through the Unified Sports program, Villegas gets to share the skills she’s learned as a student-athlete “and introduce them to the rest of the individuals in our program, ultimately being the reason I encourage everyone to join our program as well!”
Inclusion is Part of the Fabric of Campus
Guerrero noted that “because inclusion has been part of the fabric of our campus and community for so many years, when we first connected with Special Olympics to become a Unified Champion school, we already had two of the three criteria in place. Over the past several years, we have worked on adding more sports, training staff, and aligning with the National Unified model to meet the 10 criteria needed to reach that elite status.”
Guerrero noted that while the past year has been challenging, “we adapted and continued to provide regular inclusive social, leadership, and sports opportunities virtually when we couldn’t be in person.
“I am so proud and thankful for all of the students, staff, parents, and community who have supported inclusion over the last 12 years and made it possible for SBHS to be one of three schools in California, and the only Northern California school to receive National Banner status.”
This program started in 2017 with a proposal by student peer helper Mariana Magana for a Gifted Soccer team. It was piloted in the Spring of 2018 with teachers Tania Sauer and Becky Bonner as coaches and players from the girls varsity soccer team as peer partners.
The program then partnered with Special Olympics, with Guerrero and Sauer as co-liaisons, and added a Gifted Basketball team while incorporating the “Unified” messaging for all teams. The school added Circle of Friends officer positions including Unified Sports Coordinator and Unified Sports Coaches and played Salinas High School’s Unified basketball team home and away prior to the pandemic.
Recognition Benefits Students
Dr. Cobb noted that while “it is an honor to be recognized for the Unified program by the Special Olympics, in reality the reward is the benefits to our students. All students involved are experiencing a program that teaches something you cannot learn in books, including empathy, caring, and understanding of our fellow community members. Our vision at SBHSD is not only to influence the San Benito High School community, but any district that has the desire to provide more inclusionary opportunities to their school community. A program like this one that nurtures a generous and caring spirit is so relevant and important in our world today.”
San Benito High School District Board of Trustees President John Corrigan said he is proud of the school, its staff and students “for creating an inclusive environment for all of our students. To be recognized for this work is a validation of all the hard work by so many.”
A Culture of Inclusivity and Engagement
As superintendent, I could not be more proud of the commitment to inclusiveness championed by students, faculty, staff, the administration and the Board of Trustees. This latest, national recognition by the Special Olympics shows that through inclusivity and engagement, we believe that every student matters. And we know that every day is a great day to be a Baler!
San Benito High School District Superintendent Dr. Shawn Tennenbaum