For Slippery Rock University, this has been 16 years in the making. Wendy Fagan, a professor of adapted physical activity, started working with the Pennsylvania chapter of the Special Olympics 16 years ago, and it began with getting SRU students coaching certifications. That evolved into working directly with the Butler County Special Olympic athletes then eventually to Interscholastic Unified Sports and working in the schools around Slippery Rock.
All that work and effort has led to Slippery Rock being named to the exclusive list of National Banner Unified Champion Schools in the United States by Special Olympics International.
According to Special Olympics International’s website release, a Unified Champion School, “has an inclusive school climate and exudes a sense of collaboration, engagement and respect for all members of the student body and staff.”
According to Joanne Leight, the chair and a professor of the department of physical and health education, Jillian Stringfellow, a project coordinator for the physical and health education department, was “instrumental” in Slippery Rock earning this award.
“A Unified Champion school is kind of a nuance in the land of the Special Olympics,” Stringfellow said. “It’s kind of something they’ve done over the past couple of years, and Pennsylvania has really skyrocketed in middle schools, high schools and colleges.
Slippery Rock became the first college or university in Pennsylvania to earn the award, along with being one of four colleges—with the University of Minnesota, Texas Tech University and the University of South Dakota as the others—to earn the award in 2020. SRU is one of just 518 schools—across all levels of education—to earn the award.
“It’s kind of hard to be a college and receive this honor,” Stringfellow said. “Slippery Rock has been partnering with the Special Olympics for the past 16 years through the Adapted Physical Activity program.”
In order to be recognized as a Unified Champion School, Slippery Rock had to apply through an application, with 10 standards of excellence having to be met yearly. Stringfellow said some of the categories are unified intramurals in sports teams, having a club at the school and showing an inclusive atmosphere and environment at the school.
“Now we’ve hit all of them,” Stringfellow said. “We were just kind of missing the club aspect, and we’ve just recently added that in the past year. I think there are about 10 programs we run in certain versions, and they all cover those aspects.”
One of the more prominent ways that Slippery Rock adapted physical activity involved with the Special Olympics lies in bocce, one of the three Special Olympics chosen sports for Pennsylvania.
“In Pennsylvania—well, you have Special Olympics International, you have Special Olympics North America, and you have the Special Olympics for different states,” Stringfellow said. “We work directly with Special Olympics Pennsylvania.”
The three assigned sports in Pennsylvania are soccer, track & field and bocce. While Slippery Rock used to have a track & field program when Stringfellow was getting her Master’s degree with SRU in 2017, it is mainly an eastern Pennslyvania sport now.
At a smaller school like Slippery Rock, it can be harder to pilot, Stringfellow said, as there are so many athletes to work with.
An unusual sport in the United States, bocce works out surprisingly well at Slippery Rock.
“Bocce is a great sport because it is very inclusive,” Stringfellow said. “You would be surprised, the kids with disabilities on the team are actually better than the kids without disabilities. It’s easy to learn to coach.”
Bocce has become an avenue for graduate students from the adapted physical activity program to work on coaching and training athletes as it can be done anywhere. As long as there is a hallway and some bocce balls, you can practice bocce, Stringfellow said.
As Slippery Rock has partnered with Special Olympics through the physical and health education department, mainly through the adapted physical activity program, the opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students has risen drastically.
“I graduated in 2017 with my Master’s in APA here, and for me, under APA, we are provided with a lot of experiences to work with kids with disabilities,” Stringfellow said. “And hands down, I think it was my favorite program to work with.”
Stringfellow has seen a culture shift in the high schools where Slippery Rock students have coached and worked with Special Olympic athletes.
“These kids without disabilities, that are maybe star soccer athletes or star volleyball players or maybe they’ve never even played a sport themselves, it’s so inclusive that they now get a chance to be in the school and work with those kids,” Stringfellow said.
According to Stringfellow, it is not even so much of coaching these athletes as it is a partnership.
“It’s not that the kids without disabilities are helping them, they really are teammates and they work toward the same goal,” Stringfellow said. “I think that these graduate students have an unbelievable experience getting to coach in unified and inclusive environments before they go off in those environments after they graduate here.”
Special Olympic athletes compete as hard as varsity athletes, and Stringfellow said the main goal is to be like any other varsity sport.
“Just like a volleyball player or a varsity football player, it really is your lettering in the sport,” Stringfellow said. “[It’s] just making it the norm, like being inclusive and accepting diversity.”
With all the programs and sports that Slippery Rock and the Special Olympics have partnered on over the past 16 years, there’s still hope for growth—it just might take some time.
“It’s a little hard to get our heads around what we can do with this time we’re in right now, with the global pandemic, but it’s a great honor and we can take it and continue to do some great things with our graduate students as leaders and mentors,” Leight said.
Despite the challenges of growing during a pandemic, Stringfellow said that the Special Olympics is always in touch, sharing new ideas.
“We have such a wonderful, long-term partnership with the Special Olympics that they throw stuff at us like every other month,” Stringfellow said. “Like, ‘hey, would you guys be into this?’ The two new schools, we’re super excited about.”
Slippery Rock is now partnered with 13 high schools across Pennslyvania, adding the 12th and 13th schools this year, and that only means more teams as each school is allowed two teams.
That partnership between Slippery Rock and Special Olympics is ever growing, Stringfellow said, and the Slippery Rock physical and health education department is helping to expand and grow Special Olympics across Pennsylvania through new ways.
“We are working on a Unified Fitness manual, which is one of the programs we have here, that we’re writing for the Special Olympics and will be distributed to all the Unified Champion high schools in the state so they can do the exact same college program we’re doing here,” Stringfellow said.
With 200 Unified Champion School high schools in Pennsylvania, Slippery Rock will serve as the standard for hundreds, if not thousands of Special Olympic athletes.
“We can go as far as our stamina and our workforce allows us to go,” Leight said.