In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
Justin Harville is director of volunteers and program services for Special Olympics Kentucky. He helps lead a relatively new and expanding Special Olympics program called Unified Champion Schools. The program promotes inclusion through unified sports, whole school engagement and youth leadership. Planned activities in those three areas, plus tools and training for students all help make their schools places where acceptance is the norm.
Q: Could you describe the Unified Champion Schools Program and its purpose?
A. The program was previously called Project Unify. It is now rebranded as the Unified Champion Schools Program because of the unified strategy it involves. Nationally, the program is in its 10th year. In Kentucky, the program is going into year five.
Q. Is it a national program created by Special Olympics?
A. Yes. Because Special Olympics is a sports-based program, this program involves unified sports, but ultimately it seeks to unify students through whole school engagement elements such as youth leadership. Whole school engagement helps students become more aware of their peers and not focus on disabilities but on an individual’s abilities. It could involve forming a unified sports club, a running club, anything that would unify the two separate school populations. From sports opportunities, the program typically spreads to other programs – for example, an invitation for a special education student to take a position on student council or the prom committee. The program gets the whole school to become inclusive.
Q. Is there a reason the program starts with sports?
A. Typically it’s the easiest to implement, it’s the most exciting and it brings the most fun to the program. We are one of nine states that has partnered with their interscholastic high school association. We have partnered with the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) to offer unified bowling and unified track.
Q. How does that work?
A. At state and regional competitions, these unified sports are viewed as an exhibition. It doesn’t count toward the team’s scoring and things of that nature. It’s an opportunity to get those students onto the same playing field.
Q. Have these two KHSAA programs grown?
A. Yes. We partnered with KHSAA three years ago. The first year, two schools participated in track. The second year it was 16. Last year we doubled that. This year we introduced unified bowling.
Q. Why was bowling chosen? You don’t typically think of it as a high school sport.
A. It was something that we knew our (Special Olympics) athletes gravitate to.
Q. How many Kentucky schools participate in the Unified Champion Schools Program?
A. We ended this year (2016-17) with 53 schools as active participants, which is 30 new schools for the year. The 603 students who were unified sports participants include those who participate in KHSAA Unified Bowling and Track Partnerships and through our partnership with the Jefferson County Public Schools, where middle and high school students participate in a Unified Basketball League. Just over 55,000 students were impacted or exposed to the program this year.
Q. What does exposure mean?
A. Exposure means having a student in the presence of the program but maybe not directly involved. For example, students would be exposed to the program by attending presentations on autism or Down Syndrome awareness led by their peers. Even if they are not actively participating as a unified partner or an athlete in sports or leadership roles, these students still learn from the program through school-wide events and assemblies.
Q. Has the program grown school by school or by district?
A. We’ve not had a full district come on.
Q. Most of the program’s current focus is at the high school level; does it start there and work its way down to middle and elementary schools?
A. Yes, in Jefferson County we’ve focused on the middle schools that feed into participating high schools. We want to eventually get to the elementary schools because we want exposure to begin there and have those friendships build through the years.
Q. How are you increasing participation?
A. We take a district and regional focus. We hold summits that allow students and administrators from a region to come in and learn about the program from other students. Through our Youth Activation Committee, students from across the state talk about what they’ve done in their schools and share ideas with their peers. We also are working with Stephanie Little, at the special education co-op, and with the Department of Education to build awareness.
Q. What is required to start a Unified Champion Schools program?
A. Attending one of the regional leadership sessions is one way. Also, they can reach out to us. We ask schools to fill out an application, which gives them the opportunity to provide information about what their program already looks like. For instance, they might have a Best Buddies program, which falls into the leadership component of our program. They might have a unified PE class. The information supplied by the application makes us aware of what they’re already doing. It also gives them an opportunity to receive grant funding from us. Those monies are sub-grants, made through the grant monies we receive from the Department of Education. There are some restrictions on what the funding can be used for.
Q. What are some ways schools can use this grant funding?
A. For example, if a new school wants to get on board, and it doesn’t have the funds to get students to the leadership summit, the school could apply for grant funding for transportation. If they wanted to start unified sports and needed a coach and one of the teachers is willing to come on board for a $500 coach’s stipend, they could apply for a grant. The monies could also be used for uniforms and equipment.
Q. What are other funding sources for unified programs?
A. School booster clubs sometimes supply funding. At other times, no special funding is required. This year, we had schools come on board and say, ‘We are going to do it because it’s the right thing to do.’ It’s something that is starting to become ingrained in the athletic departments.
Q. So in some cases the coaches aren’t paid extra?
A. Yes, they are not viewing it as two separate teams. It’s part of their program. A neat story out of Mercer County this year was the fact that it took one student to start the unified track program there. And, it wasn’t something that hindered their program because Mercer County won the state title in track this year.
Q. What challenges do schools seem to face with implementation?
A. It varies by school. Sometimes it’s transportation. Sometimes it is availability of facilities for the activities or scheduling.
Q. Are online resources available for schools?
A. Yes. Our website (soky.org) is being updated now and we are getting those resources online. We have a high school playbook that serves as a tool for students or teachers who want to implement the program. It provides a checklist, tools to establish a school leadership team, assessments, mini-lessons for classroom settings, among other tools. Resources are also available on the Special Olympics website at
Q. Beyond coaches, what other additional personnel are required?
A. What we saw in Mercer County, where a student reached out and said, “I want to do this,” is that students will take this on and run it. Then administrators, teachers, athletic directors are just there to advise and supervise to say, “Yeah, we can do that” or “I would rethink this.”
Q. Does the program end when a student’s high school career is over?
A. We’re looking to partner with colleges and universities and build Unified Champion programs on campuses in Kentucky so that the opportunities don’t end when you graduate from high school.
Q. Have any studies been done to show the benefits of the program?
A. Yes. We partnered with the University of Massachusetts on a survey of all our school liaisons. What it found is that the program helps decrease bullying, which is important as one in three students is bullied and the population we serve is two to three times more likely to be bullied than the general student population.
Administrators see that this program is not just going to impact special education students and bring your community together, but it’s also going to start decreasing bullying levels. The complete school energy is changed. Like walking into a school that’s not really involved in all three components versus walking into Eastern High School in Louisville where everybody’s engaged, looking at people as an individual. A lot of the administrators are finding that it raises the awareness of everything.