Cheerleaders stand behind a sign that says We Play Unified! in relation the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools initiative

The Eastern High School competitive cheer squad, which includes Special Olympics participants, welcomes the crowd during the National Banner ceremony. Photo by Joe Ragusa, Kentucky Department of Education, Feb. 2, 2024

During the school year, Vincent Gallucci loves to bowl and run track.

“I like track the best because I get to run and help my friends in the process,” he said.

Gallucci, a sophomore at Larry Ryle High School (Boone County), participates in the school’s Club U program, which is a Unified Sports program that’s part of the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools initiative. The national initiative is aimed at promoting social inclusion through intentionally-planned and implemented activities in K–12 schools and across college campuses.

Alyssa Trame, a junior at Larry Ryle, also participates in both bowling and track, but she said her favorite is “definitely bowling … because I always get strikes.”

The Club U program at Larry Ryle High School features several different sports, pairing athletes with student volunteers in an effort to build self-sustaining, school-based programs that foster inclusive, positive and equal student relationships.

Averie Pergram, a senior at Larry Ryle High School, said she heard about the program from friends who raved about it and told her it helped them grow as a person, so she decided to join as a volunteer.

“It made me branch out more than what I normally would have. I mean, (I) made friends with everybody here, with our buddies, and … it just made me have a purpose to come to school other than just grades,” said Pergram.

Maycee Geis, also a senior at the school, said she joined because Pergram spoke so highly of the program.

“Honestly, just seeing all the kids and all the peers interact with each other and knowing how genuine it is, it just really inspires everybody; makes everybody want to join,” said Geis.

Jill Rosen, head coach of the Club U program and athletic coordinator at Larry Ryle High School, said they hold the student volunteers to a high standard.

“But then every year when they leave, I’m sad to see them go and I think, ‘Oh my God, this is the best batch,’” she said. “And then the next year, we have another great batch that comes in.”

Larry Ryle High School is one of more than 100 schools in Kentucky that participate in the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools initiative. Special Olympics Kentucky assists schools in the Commonwealth with implementing the three pillars of a Unified Champion School:

  • Inclusive sports: These schools include Unified Sports programs such as interscholastic/Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) Unified Sports, Unified physical education or Unified intramurals, and Special Olympics Unified Sports. Inclusive sports support all ages. Special Olympics Young Athletes has an inclusive play activity program for ages 2-7.
  • Youth Leadership: Students with and without intellectual disabilities at these schools work together to lead and plan advocacy, awareness, Special Olympics and other inclusive activities throughout the school year.
  • Whole School Engagement: These schools hold awareness and education activities that promote inclusion and reach the majority of the school population.

“Most of our schools start with sports because it’s a common language for most people,” said Karen Parsley, director of Unified Champion Schools. “So for our special education students and our general education students, coming together to do sports is really the core of what we do.”

Larry Ryle High School and Eastern High School (Jefferson County) earned the distinction of becoming a Special Olympics Unified Champion National Banner School, meaning they achieved 10 specific benchmarks the organization has laid out to determine if a school has created a full-inclusive sports or fitness program. The initiative has different benchmarks depending on grade level, and each of the Kentucky schools in this year’s class fell under the national standards for high schools and middle schools.

The National Banner means the school is among the best of the best in the Unified Champion Schools program, and each school typically has a banner-raising ceremony to celebrate.

Students hold a banner saying National Unified Champion School - Eastern High School in front of a crowd of students

Eastern High School students celebrate the school’s designation as a National Banner Special Olympics Unified Champion School during an all-school pep rally. Photo by Joe Ragusa, Kentucky Department of Education, Feb. 2, 2024

The program at Eastern was started by Carol Bryar, a moderate-severe disabilities (MSD) teacher at Eastern.

“When I came to Eastern, I wanted to be a part of a typical high school and help give my students a typical high school experience,” said Bryar. “This student body embraces those concepts that the Unified programs represent. Eastern students, staff and administrators are the best in the state.”

A third school, Bullitt East High School (Bullitt County), renewed its National Banner Unified Champion School certification after initially earning the honor in 2019.

Parsley said she has only seen five schools in Kentucky earn the National Banner in her seven years with the program, and each banner raising ceremony is one of the most rewarding events they have.

“It feels amazing for us,” said Parsley following Eastern High School’s banner ceremony. “We work very hard every school year to work with new schools, offering them more opportunities for students that are maybe not getting those opportunities in their schools.”

Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools is offered at the state level and supported with funding by the U.S. Department of Education. The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Team serves as a collaborative partner.

Damien Sweeney, director of the KDE Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Team, said he loved attending the National Banner ceremonies at both schools.

“Seeing the entire student population cheer on our neurodiverse student athletes was inspiring. Each school rallied around these programs,” he said. “While they cheered on these students, we couldn’t help but be excited about the sense of belonging and inclusion work that was intentionally created for these schools to be recognized.”

The Kentucky Board of Education highlighted the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools initiative during its meeting in October. Deputy Commissioner and Chief Equity Officer Thomas S. Tucker said KDE couldn’t be happier to see the work being done throughout the Commonwealth and is thrilled for the department to continue its partnership with Special Olympics.

“Their inclusive work for neurodiverse students is some of the finest work I’ve seen when working toward enhancing student belonging,” he said.

Rosen said earning the National Banner designation is a tough task with years of work behind it, but the Club U program had buy-in across the district, from administrators to the athletic department to the student volunteers.

“We do so much with our students to integrate them into everything around the school, but this just shows how awesome morale is and how we have just accomplished everything we wanted to,” said Rosen.