Unified Schools brings students together at MHS

Members of Unified Schools, a Special Olympics program at MHS, gathered for a group photo during the lunch hour earlier this month. (Photo by Clay Sawatzke)
Members of Unified Schools, a Special Olympics program at MHS, gathered for a group photo during the lunch hour earlier this month. (Photo by Clay Sawatzke)

Nathan Rowe was watching ESPN one day when a program caught his eye.
The world-wide leader in sports was discussing Unified Schools, a Special Olympics program that focuses on bringing disabled and non-disabled students together through a wide range of activities.
Rowe, the school psychologist at Monticello High School and Little Mountain Elementary, immediately thought the program would be perfect for MHS.
“We have just a perfect setting for it here,” said Rowe, noting Monti is part of a Centerbased Developmental Cognitive Disability (DCD) program with Big Lake, Becker and St. Michael-Albertville, that allows special needs students from those areas to come to school at MHS.
He contacted Special Olympics Minnesota to look into bringing the program to MHS.
It was then that he found out he wasn’t alone in his mission. Tara Storts, a Phy. Ed teacher at MHS, had already been in contact with Special Olympics about bringing programming here.
Together, they decided to make it happen.
The results have already been something special.
Last year, Rowe and Storts started a Young Athletes program in Monti, which works with kids from two to seven years old, bringing disabled and non-disabled kids together to play sports and do activities.
“That was really fun,” said Rowe, adding that they brought some high school kids in to help with the program. “The kids seemed to really love that.”
So this year, they added the high school version of the program, which is Unified Schools. The program’s website says: “Unified Champion Schools guides young people to make a future that’s welcoming and respectful to all. It’s an inclusive program, so everyone is welcome. Together we will make an inclusive future for us all.”
The biggest theme of the program is bringing disabled kids and non-disabled kids together as one. Rather than having non-disabled kids be coaches when they play sports, each and every kid plays and is on the same team. When they do an activity, every kid does it together, no matter their background, learning abilities, or anything else.
Rowe said he would have been happy to have 10 kids sign up for the program, which meets during the lunch hour every Friday afternoon. They got more than 60, including approximately 20 disabled students.
“It’s been better than we thought,” he said. “To have 60 … it’s really powerful.”
For now, the group is led by Storts, Rowe, and Annie Emanuel, a DCD paraprofessional and Unified advisor. Ideally, it is a group that will become student led in the future. In the interim, Monti has three students, Brianna Stenvick, Avery Hilgart and Alyssa Johnson, who have all stepped up to serve as student leaders within the program this year.
It’s been a mix that has been very successful. The Monticello chapter of Unified Schools has already participated in two big events, and has many more on the schedule. More than 60 students traveled to a Phy. Ed. Conference in Wayzata, where they performed a choreographed dance to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling”. A couple of days later, they performed at a dance marathon fund-raiser at the Mall of America.
Rowe said he felt like the performances went super well. The students agreed.
A handful of them used “fun” as the first word to describe the performances.
“I was kind of nervous, but I did get through it,” said Brittney Howe, a student in the DCD classroom.
Stenvick said she really loved the Mall of America dance.
“Normally I don’t like getting up in front of people,” she said. “But it was just really fun to get up and dance together.”
Jaden Jarmuzek, a hockey player at MHS who jumped at the opportunity to volunteer with Unified, said the dance was a great experience.
“That song we danced to, I can’t listen to it anymore without getting chills,” said Jarmuzek.
The program has numerous activities coming up, including holiday shopping, a holiday dance, a Valentine’s Day dance, a polar plunge fund-raiser, and more. But just a couple of months into the program, it is clear that the students are focused not just on the activities, but on getting to do them with each other.
“All coming together and being unified, that’s what’s so great about it,” said CoCo Spartz, another Unified student volunteer. “It doesn’t matter what you got going on, when you come here you’re all one, you’re unified.”
It’s an attitude that is already seeping out of the program and into the halls, classrooms and common areas of MHS.
“The MHS students have really embraced our students in the special needs classroom,” said Emanuel. “I’ve really seen their confidence boosted. Kids are saying hi to each other in the hall and interacting more and it’s building their social skills. It’s just a joy to see that come together.”
The DCD students have noticed as well. “What I really like is everyone, disabilities or not, is just getting along and getting to hang out,” said Stenvick. “I went to a different school where Special Ed. didn’t interact with other students. I have autism and I didn’t feel comfortable letting anyone else at my school know that. It’s more open and accepted here and everyone just gets along better. I just like that.”

Contact Clay Sawatzke at [email protected]