News Release

ESPN names SBHS top 5 Special Olympics Unified Champion school

The five schools were chosen for demonstrating an ongoing commitment to inclusion.
Gifted soccer. Photo courtesy of San Benito High School.
Gifted soccer. Photo courtesy of San Benito High School.
Gifted Cheer. Photo courtesy of SBHS

Information provided by San Benito High School


San Benito High School on Oct. 28 was named one of ESPN’s Top 5 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools for 2021. Only five out of 8,000 eligible schools around the country are selected for the Top 5, which also included Tulane University in Louisiana, Waverly High School in Michigan, New Jersey Regional Day School and Garfield Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

SBHS previously was 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 banner award and ESPN Top 5 designation are firsts.

Community Commitment to Inclusion

In a joint statement, Dr. Paulette Cobb, San Benito High School District’s director of specialized student services and special education, and Casandra Guerrero, the special education program specialist and advisor for Circle of Friends, said the recognition by ESPN “is a reflection of the commitment of our community to equitable practices and inclusion over many years,” including the Gifted Games, peer tutoring in Life Skills classes, and the Circle of Friends program.

“It evolved into cheer, soccer, basketball, inclusion games, Unified Prom, rodeo … and the list will grow,” they said. “Specifically, the SPED team in our program for students with moderate to severe disabilities has relentlessly pursued equity and inclusion for all students and these amazing programs are being seen nationwide. To see our students smile when they cheer at a football game or get honored as homecoming royalty is priceless. The dedication of our student leaders and staff who continually step up to coach and support our students is absolutely unique and special to San Benito. This award is an honor, and so well deserved. It is a great day to be a Unified Baler!

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.” 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.

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


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.” 

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!”


Unified Sports

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 also added Circle of Friends officer positions including Unified Sports Coordinator and Unified Sports Coaches.


Announcement video by ESPN here:


Founded in 1875, San Benito High School provides a rigorous and relevant curriculum to approximately 3,000 students, with the goal of preparing them for the demands of college, careers, trade or technical schools, or military service. The mission of SBHS is to education ALL students to their highest potential, so they will have the greatest range of personal options upon graduation.