Jordan Bigmed’s team at Auburn Elementary School was down last weekend during the first game of a basketball tournament between his school and a handful of others.
But being behind might in fact be the secret sauce to winning for the fourth-grader who joined Special Olympics Oregon just a month ago.
“If I’m losing, I’ll push myself,” Bigmed said.
Sure enough, Auburn — the only Salem elementary school in the tournament — won the next three games.
“We worked as a team,” Bigmed said.
Fast forward to Wednesday, when that team and more than 500 Auburn students and 70 staff packed the gym to become the first elementary school in the state to receive the “State Unified Champions Schools Banner” from the Special Olympics Oregon for the school’s “unified schools programming” — half students with and without disabilities participating in the same activities.
A school can earn a banner by demonstrating three pillars of engagement – whole school involvement, sports unity and leadership opportunities.
“We’re so proud of them for accomplishing this,” said Britt Oase, CEO of Special Olympics Oregon. “The fact that it’s an elementary school became a banner school fills my heart with joy. I have to believe the kids in that school are really going to appreciate that programming and take those lessons and values with them as they advance in their scholastic careers.”
During Wednesday’s assembly, a movie played showing Auburn students’ involvement in the unified schools programming. A polar bear mascot was also on hand to promote Auburn’s “polar plunge” team before the banner was presented by Special Olympics Oregon.
Amanda Burke, a district mentor for the Unified Champions Schools program, took note of her students’ reaction to the honor.
“I know some of the older kids, you could see their wheels spinning and turning and understanding it,” she said. “Some of the younger kids were just excited because of the polar bear. Then, our superintendent led the students in cheer and chanting and got everyone really excited.”
Oase called earning a banner “achievable, but it’s a commitment.”
“They need to have a plan, they need to have buy-in,” she said. “They need to have both students and staff who really embrace this and to make it a part of their school culture.”
Under the Special Olympics Oregon program, the students are encouraged to do things together — from ceramics to theater.
“The more kids are able to find what they have in common versus what makes them different, I think the world will be a better place,” Oase said. “That’s really what these unified programs do.”
Burke noted the elementary school embeds unified programming classes into the school day as opposed to making them an after-school activity.
But even in those settings — which mostly relate to athletic — Burke said the spirit of unity is apparent, especially during the annual kickball tournament.
“It’s really not for the purpose of competing to win and take each other down. It’s all about playing and loving the sport and spending time together,” she said. “Everyone works really well on and off the field.”
The unified programs also offer leadership opportunities for students.
Third-grader Leilani Green, who has been part of Special Olympics Oregon for several years, is involved in leadership. She raises the flag in front of the school everyday.
“It’s nice. It’s important to do it,” Green said.
Meara Davis is a physical education teacher at the elementary school who pitched the idea for Auburn to be part of Special Olympics Oregon unified programs.
“It’s really exciting and it has made a huge difference at our school,” Davis said.
She sees kids not just waving at each other to and from school, but general education students helping the ones with disabilities when they need it.
“It’s changed our culture for the better — it’s improved behavior,” Davis said.
Her colleague, Alejandra Saechao, a special education teacher, agreed and noted the ways general education students and those with disabilities benefit from unified programming.
“The partners are learning skills that can benefit the athletes, but the athletes are also feeling a sense of being human,” Saechao said. “I think oftentimes, when we think of students receiving services, we think, ‘Oh, we need to help them’ but this program really highlights the abilities they do have. We can build partnerships through using those skills.”
The skills and friendships students gain from Special Olympics Oregon’s unified programming carry on to middle school.
“It was so nice to see them continue the work that we started here,” Saechao said.
The district’s six high schools, eight middle schools and five elementary schools participate in Special Olympics Oregon’s unified programming.
Burke noted the pandemic slowed the district’s roll out of unified programming, but with activities back to normal, officials are introducing the programs to more schools in a “trickle down” fashion. She hopes more elementary schools get involved.
“We’ll continue to do all of the things we’re doing,” Burke said.
She added that Auburn hopes to earn the Special Olympics’ national banner in the spring.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that Auburn was the first school in the state to receive the “State Unified Champions Schools Banner.” It was the first elementary school in Oregon to do so. The headline and story have been updated for accuracy. Salem Reporter regrets the error.
STORY TIP OR IDEA? Contact Reporter Kevin Opsahl by email at [email protected].
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Kevin Opsahl is the education reporter for Salem Reporter. He was previously the education reporter for The Mail Tribune, based in Medford. He has reported for newspapers in Utah and Washington and freelanced. Kevin is a 2010 graduate of Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, and is a native of Maryland.