This November, students in the area northeast of San Jose/Silicon Valley got to experience a Special Olympics Northern California Schools Partnership Program competition for the first time. Special education student-athletes in middle and high schools in the Fremont, Newark and New Haven school districts – which comprise the Mission Valley Special Education Local Plan Area – spent the fall preparing for the soccer tournament by practicing with their classmates during the school day. And boy was it worth it.
The Mission Valley SELPA soccer competition was hands-down the best Special Olympics event I’ve ever attended. From student greeters directing and welcoming you to the parking lot to the first-of-its-kind Closing Ceremonies, this Schools Partnership Program event was all that and a bag of chips.
But as Sister Maria said, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…
AN AIR OF EXCITEMENT
Before anything got underway, there was a palpable buzz as students, parents and teachers milled about outside the gymnasium. Newark Memorial High School’s mascot was there with a sign boasting the Cougar special-ed student-athletes who were ready to play:
American High School cheerleaders holding signs for all the different schools in attendance, and streamers decorated the gym doors. Parents, teachers and lots of general education students from American (aka AHS) made their way through the streamers and into the gym for…
THE OPENING CEREMONIES TO END ALL OPENING CEREMONIES
Upon entering the gym, everyone was greeted by the AHS band and more posters made for each school. Not to be bested by Newark, the American HS mascot was also there. After an introduction from the student emcee – a senior named Eddie – the Parade of Athletes began, set to the Olympic theme song. There was lots of cheering for all the schools but it was deafening for host school American High, whose students entered last.
While most Opening Ceremonies for soccer are outside, the friendly confines of the gym made everything seem more exciting! One of the general education students who helped plan the whole day had the notion to not only make signs for each school but to have them be escorted in by AHS gen ed students and cheerleaders. They even put together a handmade Flame of Hope!
The four students who participated in the Torch Run organically came together all the end to raise the Flame of Hope in triumph, and it was just awesome.
Some of my favorite quotes from opening were:
“American High School feels honored today that we could host this special competition!” – American High School Principal Greg Bailey
“We are here for you – the athletes,” Emcee Eddie
“Today is about champions and winners. Every student here today is a champion and a winner.” – Fremont Unified Superintendent Dr. James Morris
“This is your day. Good luck, and most of all, have a great day. Let the games begin!” – Principal Bailey
The energy inside the gym was absolutely electric and it definitely got a little dusty for more than a couple people.
Emcee Eddie said after opening that, “We like having the special ed students involved. We never want them to be left out.” Donning his football jersey, Eddie would later play in a playoff football game that evening after volunteering at the soccer competition in the morning.
ATTITUDE REFLECTS LEADERSHIP
One of the many things that made this event so unique was the devotion and planning put forth by the general education students – particularly those in the student government and leadership. The leadership group spent weeks making signs, getting volunteers and organizing the event. Whether it was a student giving a high five to one of the student-athletes or referring a game or the one who handed me a poster to hold up (that’s now hanging in my office) – the general education involvement was priceless. Plus, they even had the soccer fields lined to boot!
Besides their hard work, the general education students were able to accomplish what they did because of the administrative backing. Both the gen-ed students and special education student-athletes benefitted tremendously from support that came from administration across the board – from the principal to the P.E. teacher and soccer coach Mr. Losson to leadership teacher Mr. Fulton and beyond. Everyone at American High School also had the endorsement of administration in the Fremont, Newark and New Haven school districts and all the respective teachers and parents.
Mr. Fulton at American told me that it’s been a goal of the students that no students on their campus feel invisible. How great is that? It’s a goal for everyone to feel included, and you could absolutely tell at the soccer tournament.
THE BEAUTIFUL GAME
In all, about 265 special education student-athletes from the three school districts played games of soccer and practiced their skills under sunny skies and unseasonably warm weather.
CLUTCH CLOSING CEREMONIES
With lots of student-athletes and schools participating at these events, Closing Ceremonies are logistically difficult and I’d never seen one happen before. But, somehow, they made it happen in Mission Valley. After everyone concluded their games and enjoyed their lunch, it was back into the gym for Closing Ceremonies.
Mirroring Opening Ceremonies, all of the schools were recognized. Everyone was presented with ribbons to mark their accomplishments.
As the ceremonies drew to a close, one of the sweetest most genuine things happened. A general education student was sitting on the bleachers, listening to music. One of the special education student-athletes was admiring her ribbon, and the gen ed student gave her a thumbs up and high five. It was such a pure and natural interaction between the two – and it just melted our hearts.