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Slam Dunk! Santa Clara County’s First-Ever Special Olympics

If you’re into March Madness buzzer beaters and Cinderella stories, last Wednesday’s tournament was one for the ages. Cheers erupted from both sides of the court as fans watched several three-foot-something kids sink slam-dunks into a net three times their height – with a boost from their P.E. coach, of course.

This stunning spectacle, with students, teachers and parents of all backgrounds and abilities cheering both teams on, perfectly encapsulated Santa Clara County’s first ever partnership with the Special Olympics.

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About 100 basketball stars from Mosaic Elementary, Discovery Prep and Brilliant Minds faced off last Wednesday at the East Valley Family YMCA, including several players from Rocketship’s Specialized Inclusion Program (SIP). Dozens of other students also came to cheer on their classmates, showing their school spirit from the sidelines with colorful handmade signs. Just as the Special Olympics aims to empower and unite athletes with and without disabilities, the SIP model helps students with moderate to severe disabilities learn alongside their general education peers for most of the school day.

Rocketship special olympics basketball

Athletes & fans from Discovery Prep proudly carry their banner during the Opening Ceremonies.

Mosaic parent Tanisha Kruger saw the event as a unique learning opportunity for her son Bryce, a student in the SIP program.

“People don’t always understand that just because someone has a disability, it doesn’t mean the rest of them is disabled. They’re still whole, and they just want to play with their friends, be a part of the competition and feel included,” Kruger said.

Throughout the tournament, students of all grades and abilities showed off their teamwork in games against the other schools. They also participated in a skills competition for dribbling, passing and shooting. P.E. coaches conducted weekly practices for the six weeks leading up to the event, and for many players, it was their first experience being part of an athletic team.

Rocketship special olympics basketball

Dribbling past some fierce opponents.

Integrated Special Education Teacher Hannah Gray, who coordinated the event to engage her students outside the classroom, watched all the players grow and learn.

“It was great to see kids in the hallways who I don’t normally get to work with tell me how excited they were for basketball practice after school.  The practices were pretty exhausting, but seeing all of the hard work pay off on the faces of the kids was totally worth it,” Ms. Gray said.

After this pilot season with three schools, Ms. Gray hopes the Special Olympics partnership can expand to include all of the Bay Area schools. Luckily, at least one parent has her back. Thinking of how much she and Bryce loved the event, Kruger calls for more fun and inclusive opportunities to meet families from different schools.

“I want to see more of it. There should be more programs like this, all year-round,” Kruger said.

A member of the Rocketship Network Support Team, Nikki came to Rocketship to help close stark inequalities in education and build the innovative schools of the future. Mentoring and tutoring throughout South Los Angeles showed her the transformational power of learning, and she is inspired every day by Rocketeers’ bright spirits and boundless potential. She earned her B.A. in Communication and Communication Design from the University of Southern California. Her other passions include community service, D.I.Y. projects, getting lost in new places, and trying challenging new workouts.

Follow Nikki on Twitter: @plaincrash


Published on March 30, 2015

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