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Community Impact

Dedicated to Promoting Inclusion in Greece: Primary 24 School’s Story

Teacher students showing their support for Special Olympics and holding a Special Olympics branded flag.
Nikoleta (right) and her students show their support for Special Olympics

As an educator and trainer, Nikoleta is dedicated to serving youth in her hometown of Patras, Greece. During the day, Nikoleta is a physical education teacher at Primary School 24, and after school, she’s a swim coach for Special Olympics Hellas.

Until recently, Nikoleta’s two roles as a teacher and Special Olympics coach were separated from each other. Like many countries around the world, most students with intellectual disabilities (ID) in Greece are enrolled in different schools than those without ID. As someone who works with young people both with and without ID, Nikoleta recognized the divide between her pupils of different abilities.

24 students arrange themselves and their backpacks to form a pictogram of the Special Olympics logo and the word 'Unified'
Primary 24 students use themselves and their backpacks to make a pictogram of the Special Olympics logo and the word “Unified”

When Special Olympics Hellas informed Nikoleta about Play Unified: Learn Unified, she realized the potential it had to bridge the barriers between youth of different abilities in her community. Nikoleta convinced her school to join the project as a Unified School, which brings together young people with and without ID through sport and educational activities.

As a Unified School, Nikoleta and her colleagues have partnered with teachers and students from two nearby special education schools. Students at these three schools play together and visit each other’s classrooms. Even though they are neighbors, for many of the students, participating in Unified Schools was their first time interacting with one another.

Faces of Inclusion: Patras, Greece - Student Gift
Students made their own handprints and named the handprints with their name and the students from the Patras. They gave it as a gift with personalized messages.

Some of these visitors to Primary 24 are Special Olympics Hellas athletes that Nikoleta trains in swimming. She says it’s rewarding to see how they are embraced by her primary school students. “Several times, my athletes have visited and shared information about their life and experiences,” she says. “We all play together and when the game is over, all the students are flooded with beautiful experiences and emotions,” Nikoleta adds.

Since becoming a Unified School, students at Primary 24 (with the assistance of Nikoleta) have spread awareness about inclusion and ID. Through whole school “challenges,” they come up with creative activities that promote Special Olympics Hellas. These challenges have included making large-scale pictograms of the Special Olympics logo, organizing Unified bocce matches and decorating Special Olympics Hellas banners for national and international competitions.

As a Unified School, students at Primary 24 have embraced learning more about Special Olympics and befriending people with ID. Adriana and Peter, two of Nikoleta’s fifth grade students, believe that participating in Play Unified: Learn Unified has improved their lives. “I was very nervous to go to a special education school at first, but I’m so happy that I played [with the students], says Adriana. “My parents say it’s good for me to meet new friends and understand that we are all different, but we are all people,” she adds.

Faces of Inclusion: Patras, Greece - First Interaction with the Special Education School
I was really nervous [going to a special education school] because it was my first time. I'm so happy now. It's good because we learn new things from others. We're making new friends. They’re just kids like us.

Peter says that participating in Special Olympics has helped with bullying at school. “In the past, [our class] used to be fighting when we play games,” Peter says. “Now, we are more kind and polite among each other, and we don’t argue over unimportant things,” he adds.

Other teachers have also noticed a significant change in their students’ attitudes since Primary 24 became a Unified School.

“Our students have learned to accept the students from the special education schools and understand their needs,” says Konstantinos, a Primary 24 teacher. “This Unified School model teaches our youth how to work with each other. We learn and play together, and I’m very proud of them,” he adds.

Teacher and students engaged in creating a banner for Special Olympics Hellas athletes.
Nikoleta (center) and some of her students participate in the activity of creating a banner for Special Olympics Hellas athletes to use at the Special Olympics World Games Berlin

Being a Unified School has even helped the way teachers instruct their students. Ioanna, an art teacher at Primary 24, says it opened her eyes how schools can be fully inclusive, students just need the right support. “Every child has their own way of learning,” says Ioanna. With this perspective [of inclusion], students with disabilities don’t need to be separate and should be included with everyone else,” she says.

Primary 24 is a model of how being a Unified School can change a community of learners and educators for the better. Although it will take more than Play Unified: Learn Unified to make schools around the country fully inclusive, the efforts of these leaders of inclusion in Patras are showing others how the idea of inclusion can be a rewarding experience for students of all abilities. “We still have a long way to go, but we believe that we are on the road to inclusion,” Nikoleta says.

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