School Beat: Special Olympics Comes to San Francisco’s Public Schools!

by Paul Zager on February 29, 2008

Special Olympics Northern California (SONC) and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) have partnered to bring Special Olympics into our city’s public schools. This program is called the Schools Partnership Program and is made possible through a grant by SONC. This unique partnership allows the entire program to be offered at no expense to the students, teachers, or individual schools.

What sets the Schools Program apart from the Community Based (weekend and after school) Special Olympics programs is that it takes place entirely during the school day. Through this program, students in SFUSD with special needs will have the opportunity to train in specific sports (soccer, basketball, track), and take part in season ending competitions, all during the school day!

The Schools Program has had success in other large school districts such as Las Vegas and San Mateo Counties but this is the first time a large urban city school district such as SFUSD has taken up the Schools Program. Along with these other school districts, SFUSD agreed with SONC that the athletic and competitive needs of many student/athletes with disabilities in Special Education were not being met.

SFUSD and SONC also recognized that when students with special needs have the opportunity to learn specific skills, participate in a real sport, and be part of a school team all within their school community, the social, emotional and intellectual potential of these students (and for the school community at large) can be enhanced. The SFUSD Schools Program took off last spring with the hiring of a TSA (teacher on special assignment) to coordinate the program. In the fall, letters explaining the program were sent out to district administrators, and a plan was developed to implement a soccer pilot program, starting with ten district elementary schools. The TSA (who happened to be a long time special education teacher in the SFUSD) went out to the targeted schools and recruited the teachers necessary to get the pilot program off the ground.

The school teachers are the linchpin of the Schools Program. Interested teachers volunteered their time and energy (and enthusiasm) to give their students this great opportunity. They created the schedule for training and running the practices so that the student/athletes developed the skills necessary for competition. The TSA provided the curriculum, equipment, and training for the teachers, and then coordinated the season ending competition. Equipment, support, and curriculum were provided by SONC.

The pilot program was divided into two parts: one group of SDC (Special Day Classes) that composed of higher functioning students would each train as a team, and learn the soccer skills necessary to compete as a team. The other group of SDC classes that had more severe impairments and would train to learn basic soccer skills (some of these students never had the opportunity to kick a soccer ball). All the students would learn certain rules and concepts of the game besides the skills, and that included stretching, teamwork, following directions, and sportsmanship.

At the end of the 8-10 week training program, a Skills Day was provided to those classes who worked only on soccer skills, and a Soccer Tournament was provided for the classes that worked on being a team. Imagine how gratifying it was for all involved to see the fruition of many weeks of training, and how much fun everybody had! During the awards ceremonies, every one of the estimated 150 students involved had their name acknowledged, and, whether they had participated in a skill or won as a team, received a ribbon. Imagine again the smiles faces and sparkling eyes of these students!

Through this process, it was obvious that the SFUSD Schools Program is a “win-win” for just about everybody involved. From administrators to teachers, to students and parents, everybody had a good time and was uplifted. These few teacher testimonies bear this out:

“There are several reasons why the school is excited about the new partnership. The first is that it is a great opportunity for the kids to participate in an organized sport, as many of them never have. Also, it allows the students to work on something as a class with a common goal, as well as to meet peers of their own age at different schools. Since I initially brought this up to the class last week, they haven’t stopped talking about it and every morning they ask when we are going to have soccer practice. It gives them something to look forward to everyday. It helps teach them life and social skills that they would otherwise not be able to receive inside the classroom.” — Brian Friedman (R.L. Stevenson Elementary School)

“In regards to last week’s soccer tournament, the kids have been wearing their ribbons and SONC tags 24/7. It’ll be a day they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.” — Agnes Leong (Peabody Elementary School)

“Thank you for the Skills Day! The setting was conducive for our activities; the staff was encouraging and upbeat; and the drills were fun. The entire day was well-thought out and enjoyable. I was SO PROUD of all the students. And the fact that all my students participated and won awards too was icing on the cake. I will continue daily practice as I saw yesterday how much my students benefited and enjoyed the activity.” — Darby Morris (Sanchez School K-8)

The SFUSD Schools Partnership Program continues this spring with Track and Field. The district is opening up the program to all special education students in all levels from Elementary, Middle and High Schools. The season ending competition will be May 23rd at Kezar Stadium. The district is projecting to have over 300 Special Education student/athletes competing in the track meet!

The interest in and the success so far for the SFUSD Schools Program bodes well for the SFUSD and its thousands of special education and regular education students alike. In a time of fiscal crisis when many teachers will receive layoff notices next month and many important school programs are in jeopardy of being cut, the Special Olympics/SFUSD Schools Program stands out as one of so many positives that public schools can offer our students.

Paul Zager is the TSA and Program Coordinator for the SFUSD/SONC Schools Partnership Program. He is in his 22nd year as a special education teacher in the SFUSD. Paul is also the proud father of a student who goes to SFUSD’s Presidio Middle School.

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