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Unifying KELOLAND Classrooms

Many teachers worry about the so-called "brain drain" when summer time hits.

The Brandon School District hopes one big lesson from this year will stick with their kids for a lifetime. Brandon is a Unified Champion School, meaning they work with Special Olympics South Dakota to help kids with disabilities feel included.

Rylee Griffith is a typical 8th grade girl. She loves basketball, time with her friends, and even some classes.

Sammi Bjelland: What is your favorite part of the school day? What's the best part?
Rylee: Chorus.
Sammi Bjelland: Really? Why's that?
Rylee: Because I like singing. 

Rylee is also a Special Olympic athlete.  While she loves taking part in those events, she's now getting to know her peers in Brandon Middle School on a new level. That's because Brandon is a Unified Champion School.

They focus on three big areas of inclusion: sports, youth leadership, and whole school engagement. Right now, there are 26 schools in the state taking part.

"We will keep going until we have all schools in our state a part of the Unified Champion School program," said Julie Briggs, VP of Outreach for Special Olympics South Dakota.

On a typical day, the students with and without special needs play sports together, participate in school assemblies or meetings together, and build relationships.

"Just being able to make friendships with them outside of school and play with them and just be there with them to help them if they need it," said Tessa Bowar, 8th grade student. 

"Meeting all these kids and realizing that they're not somebody else. They're just like everyone else," said Peyton Carroll, 8th grade student.

"I think it helps having non Special Olympic athletes being with Special Olympic athletes. Showing them the way and it also carries over into the classroom and into the community," said Scott Carroll, Special Olympics coach and Brandon teacher. 

That's actually one of the Special Olympics' biggest goals with this program. That this mindset of everyone being equal will continue with the kids for years to come.

"It's about education. It's about educating our youth, and granted there's not just youth but adults need some good education also," said Darryl Nordquist, President and CEO of Special Olympics South Dakota. 

President and CEO of Special Olympics South Dakota, Darryl Nordquist, is hopeful these lessons will transfer into adulthood for the kids in Unified schools now.

"What I love about it is we get into the schools, we teach, and then those youth grow up. They get into college. They get into the working world and now all of a sudden they bring that to the table in the working world and I tell you what, it's exciting," said Nordquist. 

"You can tell like in the high school and things like that, and even in the middle school and in the lower grades, that it really does help with the special education kids. And focuses on friendships and being a part of something. Rather than just being in a classroom," said Scott. 

"This will help me when I get older just like communication wise, but if something happens I can just reason with the person and not get upset or just freak out or anything. I can just handle it," said Peyton. 

Until then, adult and student advocates for the program are working hard to share why everyone should sign up!

Sammi Bjelland: What is so wonderful about the Unified School Program?
Rylee: Being with my friends. 

"We have some great schools in our state that are already doing this. They are already doing Unified sports. They are including those with and without disabilities in every aspect of their school," said Briggs. 

"They should definitely just do it. It's amazing. You get to meet tons of new kids. Tons of new kids. You get to hang out with the younger kids and older kids and just be able to really know everyone. It's a really fun time," said Bowar.

If you would like your school district to be a Unified Champion School, you can contact Special Olympics South Dakota or contact Julie Briggs at 605.331.4117 or jbriggs@sosd.org.




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