Hopewell Valley Central High School (HVCHS) can add Special Olympics Unified Champion School to the school’s list of achievements after earning the distinction this year.
The Special Olympics recognizes a school as Unified Champion School if they demonstrate commitment to inclusion with meeting 10 standards of excellence.
Under those standards are activities such as Special Olympics Unified Sports, when students with disabilities compete together on team, which involves inclusive youth leadership and whole school engagement, according to the Special Olympics.
With music playing, a photo booth, and a room abuzz with conversation and noise, students, teachers, and the administration celebrated the school being named Unified Champion School on Nov. 16 at the high school in Pennington.
“Tonight, reflects the accomplishments of a lot of different people who have done a lot of amazing things through the past few years. The unified movement in Hopewell Valley began several years ago with our Unified Track program,” HVCHS Principal Patricia Riley said.
“Unified track took off like you would not believe. Unified track was our first team in the school to compete internationally, we competed in Toronto and represented the United States.”
Unified track was chosen in 2022 to represent New Jersey for USA games for the Olympics. HVCHS’s team flew to Florida to compete.
“The model (Athletic Director Tripp Becker) created for Unified track is being used as the national model all around the country,” Riley said, adding what has been created here is now being replicated all around the country.
Due to the success of Unified Track, the high school implemented a Unified club. The club was established in 2019 by teachers Meaghan Chaves and Michelle Brennan, which promoted social opportunities and unity between people with and without disabilities.
“The unified club ended up being an amazing experience because it brought together a lot of groups of different people, not only club members but the people who sponsored the unified hours each month,” Riley noted.
“We have had Unified hours with FBLA, the basketball team, cheer squad, photo club, baking club and we’ve had unified hours all over this building with different groups that want to be inclusive.”
The Unified club consists of about 50 members with about equal members with and without disabilities.
The school then expanded to do Best Buddies. HVCHS Child Study Team members Holly Kaufman and Brooke Garcia-Andrews started a chapter of Best Buddies at the school in the 2022-23 school year.
Best Buddies is a national organization dedicated to developing friendships between individuals with and without disabilities, according to Riley.
“(Best Buddies) partners students together different activities take place, so there was a Valentines Day party last year, Buddy Partner party this month, and last year was the friendship walk at TCNJ (the College of New Jersey),” she said.
The inclusive opportunities, and advocate for whole school inclusion such as the clap-outs or involvement in prep rallies are just some of the things that helped the high school become a Special Olympics Unified Champion School.
“We are the only high school in New Jersey to receive this national award this year. That is huge and because of all of you,” Riley added.
The school administration found out HVCHS would be named a Unified Champion School in September.
There is an application process and HVCHS had to demonstrate that it could meet the pillars of inclusivity and the ways you demonstrate the inclusivity is sustainable and not a one-time effort.
“It really is neat to see everyone having fun and building genuine friendships that are lasting outside of school as well. I want people to realize how important inclusivity is and that we are modeling that for our students every day,” Riley said.
HVCHS’s Unified track is one of the school’s most successful athletic programs.
“The track team is made up of athletes and made up of partners. We have been doing it for the past eight or nine years,” Becker said. “It has been great and really grown. We had a few kids when we started. We’ve hosted the first Unified track meet in New Jersey and host track meets after.”
Becker expressed how great it is to see the teams smiles and when competing and with the trips they have been able to take.
“They are having fun and that is what it is all about,” Becker said.
There had been talk about expanding, but a lot of the students that do Unified track also compete in the high school’s varsity sports.
“We have kids who are on our varsity teams, cross country team, varsity cheerleading team, varsity swim team, and indoor track,” Becker said. “If we have the interest absolutely, but those kids are participating varsity athletics, so we will have to see.”