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Bryant school earns Special Olympics honor

By Jillian McGehee

This article was published October 8, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.


During a celebratory rally, Bryant High School students Addie Richards, left, and Jake Cowell hold the banner specifying the Special Olympics distinction the school earned as a National Unified Champion School.

— For its inclusion of students with all abilities, Bryant High School is the first school in Arkansas to earn national recognition from Special Olympics for the school’s capacity as a National Unified Champion School. To earn the recognition, Bryant had to meet 10 national standards of excellence.

Other schools in Arkansas also participate in Unified Sports and are considered Unified Schools, but Bryant is the first in the state to receive the Special Olympics National Unified Champion School award.

The overreaching goal of the Unified Champion Schools initiative is for schools to welcome all people, according to the Special Olympics website. Special-education and general-education students should engage each other, and teachers and students are encouraged to collaborate and create supportive classrooms, activities and opportunities, the website states.

Bryant High School’s Partner’s Club “worked really hard to be awarded this distinction,” club sponsor Caroline Hays said. “We worked hard to promote communities where all young people are agents of change, fostering acceptance, respect, dignity and advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities.”

The club had to participate in a minimum of three Unified Sports competitions, Hays said. Club members participated in basketball, floor hockey, volleyball, softball and golf. In addition, the club had to include another Unified Sports opportunity.

“We have an adaptive PE class where we have members of the Partner’s Club as well,” she said.

The existence of the Partner’s Club easily met another qualification, which is to have a group on campus that supports inclusion and exudes a collaborative environment for all members of a student body.

Partner’s Club President Taylor Wilson said the club gives students a humbling opportunity to “step into the shoes of a kid with special needs.”

“The experience creates empathy and love for these students. And for our athletes with disabilities,

it gives them the chance to feel loved, appreciated and cared for,” Wilson said. “The relationships the Partner’s Club creates improve the environment in the school as they teach students how to love others despite our differences.”

Hays, a special-education teacher, said the club has been in place for four years and works to encourage whole-school engagement, which is another requirement to qualify for the national recognition.

During the qualification period, the Partner’s Club hosted two awareness events: Spread the Word to End the Word and a Special Olympics-focused pep rally. The club also had to participate in the Polar Bear Plunge to help raise funds for Special Olympics.

Hays, who’s been teaching for 32 years, currently teaches nine students throughout the day. Special education has evolved through the years, she noted.

“When I first started teaching kids with disabilities, they were pulled out of class into a special-education classroom. Now the kids with disabilities are taught in a class-within-a-class setting,” she said. “They have two teachers or a teacher and a paraprofessional. The students with more severe disabilities are still pulled out, but they go to a regular class to socialize and interact with the students. Inclusion has gotten a lot better. People are more accepting of differences now.”

Hays has been around people with disabilities from an early age. Her mother worked at the Conway Human Development Center for more than 25 years.

“I was raised around people with disabilities and have always had a special place in my heart for them,” Hays said. “At the age of 14, God chose me to become the aunt to a very special baby. My niece was born with Down syndrome. I could always get her to do things that her mom couldn’t, so that motivated me to become a special-education teacher.

“I enjoy seeing the look of accomplishment and satisfaction on the kids’ faces when they learn something new or even when they do something they already know how to do. They are such loving and caring children.”

Hays said people with disabilities are just like anyone else.

“The kids don’t want you to treat them any differently that you do other kids,” she said.” They want love, boundaries and discipline. They want you to talk to them in an age-appropriate voice and treat them like you would anyone else.”


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