By Paul Lonardo
Last September, Special Olympics named Anna M. McCabe Elementary School a “National Banner School” for its dedication to inclusion, advocacy and respect. McCabe became the first of two elementary schools in the state to receive the distinction and is one of only four schools in the nation to earn the honor of being celebrated by Hasbro, who is a supporter of Special Olympics. Along with McCabe Elementary School, the Class of 2019 National Banner Unified Champion Schools in Rhode Island include Smithfield’s R.C. LaPerche Elementary, Smithfield High School, as well as Cranston High School East. Hasbro’s Philanthropy team announced their involvement in McCabe’s celebration with a toy chest reveal during a schoolwide assembly given by the Down Syndrome Society of Rhode Island on January 7th. Hasbro’s global philanthropy and social impact director, Kevin Colman told students that they were chosen because they proved to show extraordinary commitment to inclusion. He then removed a cover from a blue toy chest as 3 red balloons floated up to the ceiling. One by one, he pulled out Hasbro board games and displayed them on the table. Students clapped and cheered as he told them these games would be left for McCabe students to have in their classroom. Colman told McCabe that Hasbro would be back for the January 31st National Banner Ceremony.
According to the Special Olympics website, a Special Olympics 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. A Unified Champion School receiving national banner recognition is one that has demonstrated commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 National Standards of Excellence. These standards were developed by a national panel of leaders from Special Olympics and the education community.
The primary activities within these standards include: Special Olympics Unified Sports (where students with and without disabilities train and compete as teammates), Inclusive Youth Leadership, and Whole-School Engagement. Banner Unified Champion Schools should also be able to demonstrate they are self-sustainable or have a plan in place to sustain these activities into the future.
On January 31, a ceremony took place at the school officially honoring McCabe Elementary for its National Banner Status. It was a proud moment for everyone at the school, but perhaps none more than Alicia Marques-Jordan, the elementary schools Unified coach. Marques-Jordan, now in her seventeenth year at McCabe Elementary School, has been named Teacher of the Year two times for incorporating technology into her physical education class.
When she first began teaching, she recalls that students with disabilities were not always included in general PE classes.
“Sometimes they would be taken by an adaptive phys ed teacher,” Marques-Jordan says. “I have my adaptive certification, as well, but to me it seemed natural to keep the students with disabilities in the classrooms with their peers.”
Marques-Jordan invited the students and their APE teacher to stay in the general Physical Education class with their peers. It turned out to be such a positive experience for all of the students that the practice continued during PE classes and Marques-Jordan eventually took over the role as APE as well. Within the next few years, middle and high schools were offering Unified sports programs.
“They would have sports teams that had students with intellectual disabilities playing alongside those who did not,” Marques-Jordan explains. “It looked like so much fun, and I just wished there was some kind of similar program for the elementary schools.”
On a whim, Marques-Jordan began researching on-line to try to find what, if anything, could be done unifying younger students with disabilities with their peers. She learned that nothing definite had been adapted for elementary schools, but that Special Olympics had some things under development, and it was almost ready to be released. Whatever it was, Marques-Jordan knew it was something she wanted for her students, and she saw to it that McCabe became a pilot school for these early unification efforts for elementary schools.
The importance of unified sports was evident, and its success was immediate to Marques-Jordan. Around the country, the ideals of inclusion and unification have continued to expand as more schools got involved.
In becoming a National Banner School, Marques-Jordan filled out all the paperwork and submitted it to the Special Olympics, unsure if her school would be nominated, despite her knowledge that McCabe Elementary fulfilled all of the necessary criterium within the organizations “10 Standards of Excellence” by which the school would be evaluated.
“It was a great honor,” Marques-Jordan says. “With so many schools applying for banner status, the recognition is so special in itself.”
The fact that three of the state’s four schools to be honored by the Special Olympics is no coincidence according to Marques-Jordan. McCabe and Smithfield High School are within walking distance of each other, and that only adds to the rapport that the teachers and administrators have with one another. They support each other’s unified programs and share a common goal and passion for enriching the experiences of all their students as they progress through the town’s educational system together.
McCabe hosted the first annual Bocce Bonanza event for the district’s Unified groups last March and plans to hold it again this year. Twelve unique bocce courses were set up around the gym. Unified pairs from LaPerche and McCabe tried their hand at Froggy Frenzy among other bocce themed stations. And then the following day, Unified pairs from the high school and McCabe had a chance to square off to see whose ball would travel down a tube and land closest to the emoji polina.
“At the end of every year, LaPerche, on the other side of town, holds a Unified Field Day, and all the elementary schools go over to take part in that event,” Marques-Jordan says.
When asked if she was surprised that 3 of the 4 schools receiving national banner status were right here in Smithfield, Marques-Jordan said. “No, not at all. Each school’s unified program looks vastly different from the others and that is ok. Unified programs are not one size fits all. That’s what makes this program so special. We are all able to tailor our programs to fit our own specific student population needs. All three schools do that extremely well, so it is not surprising that all three schools are National Banner Schools.
Special Olympics’ inclusion pledge should be one that everyone should vow to uphold:
I pledge to look out for the lonely, the isolated, the left out, the challenged and the bullied.
I pledge to overcome the fear of difference and replace it with the power of inclusion.
I choose to include.
To find out how to get involved, contact Special Olympics Rhode Island 370 George Washington Highway in Smithfield 401- 349-4900 or visit https://specialolympicsri.org/