Mt. Vernon joins program promoting inclusiveness

FORTVILLE – Mt. Vernon Schools will bring together athletes next month for sporting activities with a special purpose.

The district is now a Special Olympics Unified Champion School and will host three field days in May to give special education students the opportunity to participate in sports alongside their peers.

Unified Champion Schools is a Special Olympics program that encourages schools to be inclusive, planning programs and events that include students enrolled in special education classes and their peers enrolled in general education programs.

Mt. Vernon joins 32 Indiana school districts that participate in the Unified Champion School program and received a $1,000 grant to get the program started, said Drew Slentz, an occupational therapist for the district. New Palestine High School also participates in the program, according to Special Olympics.

This year, the district is hosting field days for preschool, elementary and middle school students. The field days — featuring various track events — are open to all students, regardless of their athletic, intellectual and physical abilities. The preschool field day is planned for May 10, and the elementary and middle school events are planned for the following week, May 16 and 17, respectively.

More than 80 students have signed up to participate in the field days; students who participate will train for the events during gym class.

Activities for younger students will be non-competitive, while middle school students have a chance to participate in competitive events for awards. Game day will feature opening and closing ceremonies, much like the Olympics, Slentz said.

Educators hope to make the field days an annual event, said Lindsay Tomamichel, assistant director of special education.

By next school year, the district wants to launch a unified track team — comprised of special education and general education students — to compete in Indiana High School Athletic Association events, Slentz said.

Educators decided to join the Unified Champion Schools program after special education director Laura Durig attended a conference that featured the program. After hearing about it, she decided she wanted to bring the program to Mt. Vernon, and staff members applied, Tomamichel said.

Joining the program aligns well with district leaders’ focus on providing a learning environment that includes all students, regardless of whether they have a disability, Tomamichel said. For example, this school year, the district opened a preschool open to students with and without disabilities.

“The school is always preaching and really talking about inclusion,” Tomamichel said.

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.