Mindy Watrous gave credit where credit was due.
Watrous, president and CEO of Special Olympics Colorado, stood at the podium on the stage at the Grandview High School auditorium on Dec. 14, and spoke of a student-led revolution, a movement that sought to make inclusion, empathy and kindness a shared value among the entire community.
Watrous spoke before the school's Colorado Carols Unified Music Therapy Concert, a performance that featured singers and musicians of all backgrounds and skill sets. The show was just one example of Grandview's diverse Unified program, an initiative that pairs students with special needs with their typically developing peers. The program has roots in sports – Grandview's Unified athletics includes options to participate in basketball, flag football, track and other activities.
However, as the concert demonstrated, the push to create options for all students to work together extends far beyond any athletic fields. Grandview, along with other schools in the Cherry Creek School District, has worked hard to make sure that inclusion is a bedrock value across the board.
"The power behind all of this is you, the students … This is truly an inclusion revolution run by the youth," said Watrous, who was on hand before the performance to formally designate Grandview as a National Banner Unified Champion School. The honor recognizes schools that have met a strict set of standards related to inclusion and involvement. "You have taken the Unified program so far from its beginnings 10 years ago. What started as a small idea has blossomed. Grandview is one of the best Unified schools in the country."
The school has received national attention for its efforts to grow and develop its Unified program; Grandview alum and current Buffalo Bills defensive end Eddie Yarbrough was a huge booster of the program during his time at the school, and has returned after his graduation to spotlight the school's good work. The efforts have also spread to other schools, and the Unified culture is alive and well in the district.
That much is clear in the honors offered this year by the Special Olympics organization.
This year, 1,100 schools applied for the title of National Banner Unified Champion School nationally, and only 182 across the country received the title. In Colorado, only six schools were named National Banner Unified Champion Schools – three of these were in CCSD. Grandview High School joined Eaglecrest High School and Arrowhead Elementary in this prestigious category.
Special Olympics Colorado officials were on hand at Arrowhead during a special ceremony on Dec. 21 to formally recognize the school's accomplishment. Arrowhead was the only elementary school in the state to be named a National Banner Unified Champion School, and according to Chaka Sutton, senior vice president of the Special Olympics Colorado's Unified Champion Schools Program, that accomplishment stemmed from the school's work in laying a strong foundation for its students.
"At the elementary level, they offer building blocks for the sports program. At Arrowhead, for example, they have a program that's all about learning the skills of flag football, basketball and soccer," Sutton said. "What it also does at this early of an age is break down the barriers and build inclusion."
Sutton added that the push toward inclusion has been contagious for the entire Arrowhead community. The popularity of the club has made empathy, kindness and teamwork shared value among all of the school's students.
"What stands out about Arrowhead is their Unified program isn't just a club where students go off and do their own thing," Sutton said. "It's a club that's recognized by the whole school, and the whole school wants to be involved in it."
Arrowhead parents Andrew and Corey Fuiks say the Unified program has had benefits for both of their kids, Max and Kate. Max, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder, was invited to join the program last year, and his sister, Kate, joined soon after as a Unified Peer. For Max, the opportunity to participate in the team-building exercises has provided valuable opportunities to build athletic skills and be more social. For Kate, the experience has offered lessons about empathy and selflessness.
For both of the Fuiks kids, the Unified program has helped them become more involved and invested in their wider community.
"It's amazing to have these kids work so hard on inclusion, which I think is lacking in society in general," said Corey Fuiks. "It's helped them socially. Sometimes it's hard for us to find peer groups to hang out with because of our diverse family. It's helpful for them to be with friends."
The impact of the "Inclusion Revolution" has been similarly infectious at schools across the district, and the effect has been an environment that's more welcoming, understanding and tolerant. As CCSD Superintendent Scott Siegfried noted at Grandview's Unified concert held on Dec. 14, these values should be fostered and spread beyond the buildings that have earned the Special Olympics' highest honor. Before student performers took to the stage to perform holiday tunes for an auditorium filled with their peers, teachers, parents and administrators, Siegfried encouraged all those involved to spread their message of inclusion to the wider community.
"I encourage you to go out into the world and put a little more of yourselves in it," Siegfried said. "The Unified program in no longer something you do; it's who you are. Go out and make the world as great as this school."