They got game

Student-athletes with special needs shine in the spotlight. How to create this program at your site.

8 min read

Voice of the Educator

They got game

Kanoe Namahoe, SmartBrief

It was her moment.

Jackie Schweizer, a sophomore at Oxnard High School and member of the school’s Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program, wanted to contribute. Oxnard was playing its cross-town rival Pacifica High School in front of a packed gymnasium and she wanted to help her team.

Schweizer stepped into the key, eyes fixed on the basket. Student coaches Savannah Golson and Vincent Walea, both seniors, jogged behind her, calling out support.

Then, from the baseline, a tall, lean figure emerged onto the court: JR Waters, star forward for the varsity basketball team and special friend of Schweizer’s.

Walea pointed to Waters. “Jackie, can you pass to JR?” he coaxed. Schweizer glanced over and saw her friend. Walea tried again. “Can you pass to JR?”

Schweizer looked at Waters and he smiled back at her. She flipped him the ball and Waters launched into the air to slam the rim. The gym exploded in cheers and Schweizer threw her arms up, her face shining with triumph.

The basket didn’t count, but that’s not what matters, says Kelly Sheeran, special-education teacher at Oxnard High School. “That was a sweet moment,” she says. “That was a sweet message to every one of those general-education students in the stands.”

Sheeran heads up the Special Olympics basketball program at Oxnard High School. The program, in its second year, includes 24 students, distributed among two teams. The teams play a three-game season–two home and one away–against other SO teams from three local high schools. Practices, held twice a week during school hours, are led by general-education students who act as coaches.

“One thing that surprised me was how multiple kids were so involved and willing to do what we had them work on,” says Golson. Walea agrees.

“They never complained or refused to do something,” he says. “Playing Varsity sports, there are kids who are not SPED [who] complain and don’t listen. But the SPED students did everything we asked and with a smile on their face.”

This type of social interaction is a primary goal of the program, explains Sheeran. “We focus on social skills,” she says. “They experience things they wouldn’t normally experience that will bridge them to the community and that is the name of the game.”

It’s working. Schweizer’s sweet moment with Waters is just one of several successes Sheeran’s seen since implementing the program.

At a recent game at Fillmore High School, one of the Oxnard boys wanted to show off the skills he had learned from watching the professional players on TV. He dribbled the ball between his legs then took a shot. “The crowd went nuts,” Sheeran says, noting that those moments go a long way in building student confidence.

“When you have screaming fans like that, these kids are walking on air,” she says. “You’ll hear them after that, ‘This was the best day of my life.’ They feel really good about themselves–it’s a huge self confidence boost.”

Sheeran has also noticed a tighter bond among the classmates. Some students in her program began volunteering to coach or help their lower-functioning peers.

“You give them a little bit of a role and they’re ready to go with it,” she says. “They will open up socially with each other, with other students on campus.”

Exposing the students to different experiences is another goal of the program. Many of them have never participated in sports or other activities, says Sheeran. The basketball program gives them opportunity to exercise choice and be part of something new.

“These kids have more barriers,” she explains. “Gen-ed kids have more choices; these kids don’t necessarily have choices. Their choices are made for them. [But now], instead of watching it, just seeing it on TV, they’re part of it.”

So what does it take to make this all work? Sheeran offers these insights.

Get committed general-education students. Sheeran recruited six general-education students to help run practices and coach the team during games.

“Their role is youth leadership,” she explains. “We guide them…[and then] they take the reins. They’ll run practices, [help] on the courts. The kids want to be with them.”

Commitment and empathy are the two most important qualities she looks for in student volunteers. She needs students who will be consistent–routine is critical for students with unique needs. They must be also be able to operate outside their personal comfort zone and be patient with the process.

“[I need] people who are really willing to embrace them,” Sheeran says, referencing her students. She acknowledges that this can take time because her students can be misunderstood. “I try to make them feel comfortable. Bridging them. And there’s a learning curve–a curve of different comfort levels, which is fine.”

Nate Rangel, a senior and student coach, agrees. “The process of getting them comfortable with me took a while because they were a little timid,” he says. But as the shyness wore off, Sheeran’s students embraced Rangel and the other student coaches. “The whole class had a family-like bond and I felt very welcomed into it.”

Engage your village. Tap into the resources of your school community, Sheeran suggests. She credits her principal, Richard Urias, and his hands-on involvement as being instrumental to the success of the program.

“The principal asked me, ‘What do you need? Let’s do this. Let’s grow this program,'” she recounts him saying.

Sheeran said she needed committed general-education students. Urias offered to speak to Jaime Moreno, athletic director and teacher in the school’s law academy. Moreno and Jaime Murillo, a paraeducator at the school, selected the general-education students who would be a good fit for the basketball program.

Urias also contacted the school’s associated student body to create posters and generate student support. He reached out to the coaching staff to participate as referees, scorekeepers and announcers. Sheeran enlisted the cheerleading squad and school photographer to help at games.

Get parents involved too, Sheeran advises. Encourage them to attend games and let them contribute food and services if they offer. The students feel proud to see their parents participating and the parents have greater appreciation for the program and feel less detached.

“It takes a village,” she says. “It’s not an easy thing for one person to line everything up.”

Start small and then grow. Begin with the local Special Olympics office and connect with the person running the Unified Champion Schools program, Sheeran suggests. He or she will know what schools are participating and how to tap available funding, she says.

Next, launch a short pilot season. Sheeran recommends doing a month of practices then holding one game. In 2018, the first year of Oxnard’s program, Sheeran’s students played one game against rival Pacifica. For the second year, Oxnard was invited to join a league that included three other high schools and the season expanded to three games.

“It’s a work in progress,” she says, adding that she collaborates often with her peers running the Special Olympics programs at their sites. “You have somebody that you’re bouncing ideas off on the other end.

You learn what to do, what not to do. You build.”

Plan to fundraise. Sheeran’s program is funded by a grant from the Special Olympics that provides $3,000 per year for three years. After that, the program will need to sustain itself financially.  The money covers uniforms, equipment, transportation and other program needs.

Transportation is one of the largest expenses of the program, says Sheeran. Renting a district bus for away games costs $33 per hour, plus $3.01 per mile. But to take all the students, she needs a wheelchair accessible bus, which is an additional $600 per wheelchair.

“That eats up a lot of the budget,” Sheeran says. To compensate, she’s planning luncheons and other group activities to raise awareness and funds. She is also looking into sponsorships and hoping to tap district coffers.

“As the program grows and expands, we’re hoping to get funding for things like that,” she says. “[We are] hoping to get funding through the board or the district.”

Let everyone contribute. Sheeran makes sure every student has an opportunity to participate, regardless of physical capability.

One student, who is wheelchair bound, acts as the team’s equipment manager, carrying the equipment on his chair. Another student who uses a wheelchair was assigned to work the baseline, retrieving the ball when it went out of bounds and pushing it back in, using his chair.

“There’s a place for those guys, for anyone who wants to play,” Sheeran says.

Be flexible, she says, referencing the exchange between Schweizer and Waters. It wasn’t important that the point didn’t count. What was important was that every student had opportunity to shine.

“If you find those little things and you make that connection, it makes it that much better,” she says. “It fills your heart more.”

Kanoe Namahoe is the director of content for SmartBrief Education and Leadership and covers issues related to education and the workforce.


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