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ESPN Top-5 Schools Announced

ESPN Names Top-5 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® for 2022

Annapolis High School has been going strong with Special Olympics Unified Sports® for over a decade. At first, it wasn’t all success though. From the start the high school had some resources from Special Olympics, however, it was hard to recruit students that did not have an intellectual disability since they did not think this opportunity was for them. “It was most challenging to effectively explain to the school community what it really means to be a ‘Unified’ sport, (or even what the sport of bocce was!) and why they are valuable to the school,” Kellie Skinner, the Unified Sports head coach, says. But a 2012 win at the Unified Tennis County Championship changed the perspective of the school community.

A brief time later, Annapolis High School helped pilot Unified classes throughout Anne Arundel County in 2017-18. What started as just a Unified physical education class quickly grew into inclusive art and dance. They’ve also implemented a Best Buddies program in 2019, and although the pandemic put things on hold, they thrived online. And they continue to press forward.

“We decided to really push ahead and plan a Unified Champion Schools Spirit Week in March 2022, to coincide with the Cool Schools Polar Bear Plunge,” Skinner says. “Each day of the week was a theme and had an activity that went along with it. Our favorite event at the end of the week was a Unified Exhibition that showcased Unified Sports, the Unified PE class, art from the inclusive art class, activities from Best Buddies, photos from the Polar Bear Plunge, and our Spread the Word: Inclusion banner from earlier in March.”

Each year, following the announcement of ESPN’s Honor Roll, the company recognizes the top five schools that demonstrate the highest of expectations and promote inclusion at the highest level. These schools are representees of 8,000 schools nationwide. Each school has met the 10 national standards of inclusion and have been nominated by their state's Special Olympics program.

Idaho: Canyon Ridge High School

In early May, hosted by the College of Southern Idaho, students along with volunteers from the Pickleball Association of Twin Falls led Unified pickle ball drills and a competition. Unified partners with Special Olympics Idaho athletes would participate. For the last several years, Special Olympics Idaho has hosted various competitions on the schools campus. Now, Unified Sports are joining the party.

Maryland: Annapolis High School

“While unified sports are fantastic, since it is an after-school program, it can limit what students are able to participate. With Best Buddies being during the school day, we are able to open up even more opportunities for an inclusive school environment. The Best Buddies club has helped organize a supply drive for the school food pantry, hosts Spread the Word to End the Word events, and continues to find ways to connect in the school community. For example, there are plans to attend the Best Buddies Friendship walk this Spring, get a larger group to the Polar Bear Plunge, and support Annapolis High School’s “Runs for Love 5k.”

New Mexico: Rio Rancho Elementary School

“In August, SONM awarded Trish Grajeda with the UCS Coach of the Year Award as part of our Distinguished Service Awards. This school really is one of those where you walk in, and it feels like family. They are all excited to work with you and everyone is passionate and truly loves being there. The students at the school are really good too. All of the staff has worked really hard to teach them about inclusion and kindness and just being a good human. They run their program differently than the rest of our schools, but they do it with so much passion, that it really works, and we’ve started endorsing their model for other programs.”

North Dakota: University of North Dakota

“During my time as President, our club had to quickly adapt to the constraints brought on by COVID-19. This resulted in Virtual workouts, game nights, fitness challenges, arts and crafts, movie nights, and lots of Jeopardy. We usually tried to give each meeting a theme (i.e., Halloween, Christmas, Hawaiian, Superbowl) just to make the meeting more exciting. The club emphasizes giving leadership opportunities to our athletes, so they actively play a role in planning activities for the year. We do have an athlete that is nominated to sit on the executive team each year. Additionally, we give athletes coaching opportunities, and many of our athletes have led discussions/presentations about respect and inclusion at various events.”

Texas: Spring Woods High School

“This program is so special to our campus and who we are! I love what it stands for I think this award will inspire others to find a way to become Unified Champion schools. Additionally, I believe that this program helps the community remember that EVERY member is valuable. All really does mean All!”


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