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Central Valley High School honored by Special Olympics as Unified Champion School

Beaver County Times - 12/20/2018

Dec. 20--CENTER TWP. -- Wednesday afternoon at Central Valley High School, the Warriors had the honor of adding another banner to the several they have hanging throughout their gymnasium.

This banner wasn't for a state championship, a WPIAL championship or even a section title. But it still had the same type of effect students as they gathered in their auditorium to receive the honor as a school.

The school was honored by the Special Olympics as a Unified Champion School, something no other school in western Pennsylvania has accomplished and an honor only five schools in the state of have received.

"I think this is a tremendous attribute to the entire student body," Central Valley athletic director Sam Cercone said after the ceremony. "We have a tremendous amount of students here who care, and when we found out we were extremely excited for everyone involved. This is just a tremendous accomplishment for Central Valley."

In order to receive this honor, Central Valley High School had to meet 10 benchmarks that are aimed toward promoting social inclusion through intentionally planned and implemented activities in hopes of affecting system wide change. Those 10 benchmarks are divided into four categories: Special Olympics Unified Sports, Inclusive Youth Leadership, Whole School Engagement and Sustainability.

Most of these criteria revolve around the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities into regular school activities. For example, one of the listed criteria is to have a Unified Sports program, where students with and without disabilities compete as teammates in at least two seasons.

For the past four years, Central Valley has put together a bocce team for one of its unified sports teams. In their first three years, the Warriors qualified for the state tournament twice. Then this past spring, Central Valley also started a Unified Track and Field program.

Research has proven that the model of becoming a Unified Champion School is an effective means for providing students, with and without disabilities, the opportunity to form positive social relationships and promote a socially inclusive school climate.

Erin Park, who is the special education director at Central Valley High School, has seen a boost in her students' confidence since the beginning of the program.

"When I first took this position seven years ago and I would walk the hallways and the kids would see me, they would run up to me to talk to me because they didn't have anyone to talk to," Park said.

"But after we started this program, I would be like 'Hey,' and they weren't talking to me anymore because they had other people to talk to. At first I was like, 'What the heck,' but then I realized, this is what we wanted to be. So it's been a big change in terms of kids wanting to participate in things because they see their friends doing things and they aren't scared to try it anymore."

Along with sports, the Unified Champion School program gives students opportunities to participate in and gain experience from other activities as well. As a part of the Inclusive Youth Leadership category, the school is required to have a Unified Club or student group that offers leadership opportunities or training for students.

At Central Valley, the students have their Unified Youth Club in which students participate in two full-school student campaigns like "Spread the Word to End the Word." They also participate in "Fans in the Stands," where they try and get students to come to bocce matches and track meets in support of their fellow students.

"They do a lot of different things to get the word out about disabilities and how to embrace others," Park said.

These opportunities have given students the opportunity to build friendships and relationships that can last past high school and into adulthood. But, while receiving this recognition from the Special Olympics is a great accomplishment, Central Valley was awarded for something that it has become accustomed to in its everyday life.

"What you see with the student body here is genuine," Superintendent Nicholas Perry said. "If we weren't genuine, this wouldn't happen. The kids show compassion for one another and anyone who is in education or as parent, wants to see their kid accepted by others and the kids genuinely accept each other here."


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