Higley Unified School District is looking to change the culture on its campuses to create a more inclusive environment.
Through its Unified Sports program, members of the general student body are able to bond with special needs students over athletics. Those bonds get carried over outside of the class, and it helps to create a more welcoming and friendly environment on campus.
For Ryan Clark, being an athlete on the Unified Sports team at Higley High School is about more than just physical activities. As a special needs student, it provides him the opportunity to bond with other students on campus through the inclusive environment created by the program and a chance to be involved in school activities that he otherwise might not be able to participate in.
“It’s just so much fun,” Ryan said. “We get to face other schools that are super good.”
If it weren’t for the Unified Sports team, Ryan’s high school experience would likely be different.
Ryan’s mother, Renee Clark, knows how special this program is to not just her son, but to a number of special needs students on campus.
“This gives him that sports outlet where he is able to have the team comradery, and to him it’s a very social thing,” Renee said. “He loves to be with other friends and other people, and just have the team atmosphere, more than necessarily playing the sport.”
Unified Sports at Higley is more than just a club. The school has taken it to the next step and has made Unified Sports a physical education class on campus.
Students with and without special needs can sign up for the class. It’s seen a rapid growth in its eight-year history to the point that the district started offering an additional class period for students who were interested.
However, even after expanding the number of positions they have open, school officials say they still have to turn away a number of students who look to participate in the class. Those interested in taking the class have to apply. Those who they feel would have the most significant impact are selected.
Despite having to turn some students down, the Unified Sports team is the second largest on campus behind only the football program with 70 members.
Unified Sports coach Jeffery Carranza says it’s unfortunate that they have to deny some students, but they’re happy to see how many want to help make the school a better place. Carranza says it has created a good campus environment.
“The relationships that the general ed students and the special needs students get to build, and that bonding factor through sports, it’s the best,” Carranza said. “Just to watch the smiles and the friendships that they gain that are going to last past high school.”
One of the students enrolled in the class is Tanner Day, the student body president at Higley.
Day didn’t sign up for the class until this school year, but he said it’s completely changed his high school experience.
“I get to meet all the different types of kids,” Day said. “Our special needs program is pretty big here at Higley and we do have a lot of special needs students and I think that’s great and wonderful.
“It gives me a different perspective that allows me to help the student body even more.”
With unified sports, the participants are all invited to compete against other schools in a number of sports.
It begins with flag football in the fall, then offers soccer in the first part of winter, track in the second part and basketball in the spring. At the end of the year, there is a banquet to celebrate the team. All athletes can letter in it, just as they would for other varsity sports.
It’s something that other schools in the East Valley are starting to also adopt on campus. Williams Field is just one of the other nearby schools with a similar Unified Sports program for students to participate in.
Brody Lelo, a member of Williams Field’s Unified Sports program, says it’s helped enrich his high school experience and has made the campus a better place.
“I love it,” Lelo said. “I think it’s a great idea. It helps communities come together and support each other.”
District officials say that because of the demand to get involved with the special needs community, they’ve seen their best buddies club take off. It’s now the largest club on campus.
It is their hope that other districts will implement Unified Sports as a class instead of offering it as a club.