Special education students are the biggest stars in schools’ annual Unity Games

Posted: Friday, February 8th 2019


The Point Loma High gymnasium was packed this past Wednesday, and it felt like the entire community was ready to celebrate one of the most anticipated basketball games of the year. Not far away at Clairemont High School, an identical scene was playing out.

Hundreds of students, school staff and family members filled the bleachers. The announcer took the microphone, not sure if his voice would carry over the electric din of the crowd. Then, to the excited applause of fans and the cheer squad, the players took the court.

These were the stars of the night, the students with special needs who were getting their chance to shine under the bright lights at each school’s Unity Basketball Game. The annual event brings special education students together with peers from their school’s basketball teams for a fun-filled celebration of friendship and inclusion.

As each player’s name was called over the loudspeaker, they were welcomed to the gym by the school’s cheerleading squad and a standing ovation from the crowd. Students who required mobility assistance were helped onto the floor by their teammates, before joining together at center court.

“Participating in these games is a transformation for special education students,” said Sarah Ott, Executive Director of Special Education at San Diego Unified. “It’s so amazing to see how they light up and get so much out of this moment.”

Once the games got underway at each school, the crowds didn’t lose any enthusiasm. With every basket scored, the teams were rewarded with raucous applause. Each team paired two or three developmentally disabled students up with members of the girls’ and boys’ basketball teams, who were there mostly for support and encouragement. In the end, both games were very close, but unique in that every participant was truly a winner.

Point Loma Principal Hans Becker pointed at the crowd of students spread across the gym, which included members of the school’s band, choir, cheer squad, baseball team and other groups. “The entire school comes together and gets behind these students,” he said. “We call it the Unity Game, and it does that – it unifies the whole school.”

One important way San Diego Unified schools make their community stronger is through the core value of fitness and wellness at every level. Events like the Unity Games are an example of that commitment in special education.

“Our students can do anything when given the opportunity,” said Superintendent Cindy Marten. “That’s what events like this, and the physical education and Special Olympics events we host in our schools, are all about.”

Marten often credits her developmentally disabled brother, who also took part in Special Olympics growing up, as the inspiration that led her into the education field. “I’m certain I became a teacher because of my brother, Charley,” she said. “I wanted to teach him.”

  

Providing special education students the same opportunities as their general education peers is central to the equity mission of San Diego Unified, and a big reason why events like the Unity Games have become an annual event. Point Loma is now looking forward to its fifth Unity Game next year, while Clairemont will host its third. The inspiration is spreading, with similar events being planned at other schools across the district.

“Having so many standout student athletes and State Champion teams in a variety of sports makes it clear that San Diego Unified has excellent athletics programs,” says Director of Athletics Scott Giusti. “But kids don’t have to be headed to college on a scholarship to benefit from fitness.”

Parents in the community agree.

“You can’t sit here and watch all this and not be moved,” said Kristin, a Point Loma parent who attended Wednesday’s game. “This shows [developmentally disabled] children that they never know what they’ll have the chance to do, because there are people here that believe in them and will help them succeed.”

More photos from the Point Loma event courtesy of Cierra Gray

Video from the Clairemont event courtesy of KUSI TV

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