On a crisp December morning, a group of Alain LeRoy Locke College Preparatory High School students arrived at Mayfair High School and were welcomed by a zealous row of parents, students, faculty, and staff. Eager but nervous, Locke students hurried to the gym for a Special Olympics Unified Sports basketball game, an inclusive activity where students with and without disabilities come together to compete as teammates.
The Mayfair High School gym opened to a spacious facility that held a roaring crowd of students, parents, and adults; an earth-shaking sound system; and a series of motivated posters made just for the basketball game—with one reading, “Play like LeBron, shoot like Kobe.” It was game day for these students.
The Locke students could hardly wait to dominate the court. “It's hard to play basketball, [but we] make it in the hoop,” said Carlos Bell, an eleventh grade Locke student on the basketball team. Bell’s peer Joanna Avelar, a twelfth grade student at Locke, complemented her teammate’s performance. “Carlos, he's a good shooter. [He] shoots basketball a lot,” she said.
This isn’t the first time Locke has participated in an inclusion-based basketball game. In May of 2019, Locke participated in its first Unified Sports track meet along with Mayfair and Warren high schools.
This basketball game was made possible through Unified Sports, a program operated through the Special Olympics that connects students with and without disabilities together to compete as teammates. This partnership has been fostered between key leaders at Locke, Mayfair and Warren High School.
At Green Dot Public Schools, all means ALL. Our schools uphold learning environments that promote equity and inclusion.
Our school leaders and educators empower our students to positively shape their school. At Locke, students participate in an inclusion advisory class that’s designed to promote equity across the campus. The program is a joint collaboration between both general and special students, teachers, and staff.
Locke’s strong campus culture and commitment to a diverse, equitable and inclusive school experience has contributed to it being one of the first high schools to launch a Unified Sports program in South Los Angeles.
For Diane Ruiz, a ninth grade student at Locke, the advisory course is one of her favorite classes. The class provides students with opportunities to develop connections through activities, board games and projects. One of the largest projects these students undertake is coordinating inclusion-based events on campus. “This is a big opportunity, and I'm blessed to have it and be a part of something big like this,” she added.
For the past three months, students have regularly trained together to prepare for the Unified Sport basketball tournament. During practices, coaches led students through a series of drills and exercises as a means of developing foundational basketball skills and camaraderie. “If we get stuck, we help our teammates out,” Ruiz said. “Our coaches taught us to have fun. It's not always about winning. It's just about being a part of something special like this,” Ruiz said.
Through this opportunity, students have learned the importance of accountability. For example, each of the Unified Sports team members are responsible for maintaining their uniforms, practicing outside of class, and arriving at sporting events on time. There are also several opportunities for students to advocate for inclusion off the court. Many of the students, who sit on the sidelines during the game, “make posters, create cheers, talk to their peers, and develop ideas for the next event,” said Kortney Davidson, who teaches special education and leads inclusion activities at Locke.
While Unified Sports has been essential to the growth of many students, it’s not a common program in South Los Angeles. “In our community, a lot of the students don't get opportunities to play in any of the high school sports or middle school sports,” Davidson added.
“We have to create those opportunities in order for our students to have them," said Lindsey Hutton, a special education teacher at Mayfair High School and the organizer of the event. "It takes a lot of effort, and a lot of team members to help. It’s definitely not a one-man show.”
Playing the game
Through Unified Sports, Davidson has watched her students grow, develop new skills, and explore new experiences alongside their teammates. “A lot of the students feel like they don't have opportunities outside of high school, but this gives them conﬁdence,” she said. Basketball, like most team sports, supports the development of key life skills such as resilience, teamwork and communication, but most importantly these activities help students become strong leaders on and off the court.
“I am super excited to be able to see both students with disabilities and students without disabilities working together, and being able to compete in an official game against another school,” said Ross Moore, Adaptive Physical Education Specialist at Locke. Moore believes student leadership is critical to any team's success. “There's just been a lot of leadership opportunities for students with disabilities, without disabilities, and our coaches, too.”
The Future of Unified Sports
This is the third year that Locke students have participated in Unified Sports, and Moore, Davidson, and their team cannot wait for the next round. “Next year, we're hoping to add another sport so we can keep going and hopefully get up to four sports a year,” Davidson said. Moore said he wants to push more schools in South Los Angeles to participate in Unified Sports.
“We want to bring awareness to more of the schools in our district, that way, we can build the program and hopefully become a Special Olympics Unified Champion School for the entire country,” Moore said. At Green Dot, special education is a program, and not “a place” for students. Our network of schools serves more than 1,800 students with disabilities, each of whom receives services and support through an individualized education program administered through a multi-tiered system. These services and methods help cultivate a learning environment that promotes inclusion, diversity, and leadership. Unified Sports helps further our mission to break down stereotypes about people with disabilities, and underscores our belief that all means all.