Thomas Jefferson High School
Unified Sports is a nationwide program that combines students from the special education program with students from the general education population. Thomas Jefferson High School represents many schools around the nation that take part in the Unified Sports program, a direct extension of Special Olympics.
Elizabeth Lynch, Keith Warren and the special education staff lead the program at TJ which includes in school unified activities as well as the after school basketball team that competes against other Denver area schools including that house the same program.
At some point during their school day, the special education students take part in an adaptive Physical Education class that mirrors Special Olympics except for the peer partner aspect in which each special education student is partnered with a general education peer.
The peers are trained and guided with skills to aid in social development and are selected from among the higher performing students in the school, requiring a referral from their guidance counselor to take part. Mostly upperclassmen are chosen and the program has recently expanded under Lynch’s guidance to begin modeling the P.E. success into other classes including ceramics, art, band, etc. “We’ve seen a reduction in bad behavior because the instruction is coming from their peers instead of adults. Nobody wants to listen to adults”, said Lynch.
The basketball teams play a 10-minute game that takes place just before the Varsity basketball games. “We try to do them before varsity basketball games so that the whole population can come”, said Lynch. A highlight of the program is the annual Pepsi Center game in which the kids get a chance to play at halftime of a Denver Nuggets basketball game.
When I talked with special education students Connor Sutton, Deanna Preston and Zeon Couch about the experience of playing on the team, their answers were both eye opening and humbling for me.
It turns out that the thrill of simply playing with the team is a victory for each of these students. “I was playing basketball at the Nuggets, and it was fun”, said Sutton. When I asked him if he made a basket, he said “Yes”, and then recalled that he hadn’t actually made a basket at all.
Same for Zeon Couch. His recollection of the experience was hardly the game. When I asked him to describe his first season playing on the team last year he kept running back to that Nuggets experience.
“It was fun. I got to go to the Pepsi Center, and I got to see the Nuggets. I’m used to only seeing them on t.v., so I was like. Oh my god, it’s the Nugget…it’s the Nuggets. Can I get an autograph and a picture?”
Couch did happen to recall one embarrassing moment from the actual game. “When I shot the ball it bounced back and hit me in the face”, said Couch. But even that the incident he described with a humongous smile.
Deanna Preston didn’t get to see the Nuggets last year. She has always dreamed of playing basketball all of her life but chose not to play in her first year of high school for a very special reason.
“At first I thought I would and then I didn’t (play)”, said Preston. Apparently, Preston was afraid to join the team because she’s played the game forever, but stated, “I didn’t want to be a showoff”.
And that was the theme of our interview. Kids too overjoyed with the experience to be interested in stuff like showing off or even making baskets. I couldn’t even load one of them into choosing a favorite Nuggets player since no one was into picking favorites or things like that. They love all of the Nuggets players just the same.
Special kids with special hearts and a love for basketball. When it comes to playing on the team, Preston described it best for them all. “It feels pretty awesome”.