Hardin Valley Academy recently was recognized as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School, but its faculty will tell you it has been meeting inclusion standards since the school first opened.
The Unified Champion program honors schools that have demonstrated commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 national standards of excellence, which includes incorporating inclusive youth leadership, whole school engagement and Special Olympics unified sports, in which students with and without disabilities train and compete together as teammates.
“Since the school was started, what’s neat is, we started (Special Olympics) from the bottom, and it’s been part of our culture from day one,” said Jennifer Hayes, HVA educational assistant and Special Olympics coach and volunteer coordinator for Area 5, the greater Knoxville area.
“I just think it’s amazing,” HVA special education teacher Mallory Woods said.
“It’s exciting,” added Tim Lee, HVA special education teacher and Area 5 games director for Special Olympics, covering Knox County, Oak Ridge and Anderson County.
“We’re one of the Unified Champion Schools in Knox County — we were the first to be recognized for that in the first group of (four) schools — but we are the only school in Tennessee that was recognized as a National Banner Unified Champion School,” he said. “Along with the recognition, (SOUCS) can help provide the necessities that it takes to do unified sports.”
For instance, it will help provide assistance to help pay for uniforms or sporting equipment.
However, Lee said the school already is self-sufficient, doing its own fundraising.
Lee said the Unified Champion School is a movement created by International Special Olympics to encourage inclusion in the schools.
“The idea is to put what we call unified sports, that’s where disabled and non-disabled peers compete together in team sports, and they compete against other schools in their areas, throughout the state,” Lee added. “The idea is just to get inclusion introduced into all these schools, where a lot of times they don’t have that already.”
While some schools may have an opportunity to be included in mainstream classes, there is not always an opportunity to have “this whole school engagement together,” he said. The program is designed to create awareness among the non-disabled students and for them to “take ownership in what is going on in their special ed program.”
Among the schools’ activities is a peer tutoring program in which non-disabled students help tutor disabled students, creating a bond and understanding between the students, Lee said.
“We have anywhere from 45 to 65 peer tutors a semester,” he added. “This sort of pushes for the one-on-one because we are a community-based instruction program, which means we do a lot of instructing out in the community.”
“The peer tutors here have done a lot of work and work very hard to make this a very inclusive environment for everybody,” Woods said.
“They really go out of their way to no only include us in everything that’s going on in the community, but they go out of their way to make projects, like our Choose to Include rallies,” he added.
The school also provides leadership conferences for special education students. Those students are involved in mainstream clubs and activities, such as homecoming queen, and they are given opportunities through business partnerships to work in the community and learn job skills.
Along with that, HVA regularly hosts Special Olympics competitions at the school.