Teams from the Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD) braved the cold for a good cause, jumping into a wintry Lake Olathe on Saturday, March 5, 2022.
They were taking part in the Kansas City Polar Plunge, an event that raises funds for Special Olympics Kansas. Click here to see a video.
This year, in partnership with the Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) and Special Olympics Kansas, Shawnee Mission high schools now all offer Unified Sports. The program gives students of all abilities an opportunity to compete in sports together.
Superintendent Dr. Michelle Hubbard joined the Polar Plunge, at the invitation of a team from Shawnee Mission West High School, saying she sees numerous benefits for all participants, because Unified Sports gives every student an opportunity to rally together and brings a sense of community.
“As a previous special education teacher, Unified Sports is very near and dear to my heart,” Dr. Hubbard said.
Mehki Knight, a SM West senior, hopes to be a coach someday and says he enjoys being involved with students in special education at his school through athletics. He also took the Polar Plunge.
“I really like helping the kids and seeing the smile on their faces,” Knight expressed. “Being able to play sports and help teach them makes me really happy.”
Though some high schools have offered Unified Sports previously, this was the first year Unified Bowling was offered in every SMSD high school, and the first year Kansas hosted a state championship tournament.
Unified Sports is an excellent opportunity because it helps break down barriers for students, according to Sherry Dumolien, director of special education in SMSD. She also joined the SM West team that jumped into the frigid waters.
“It creates an opportunity for two worlds that maybe wouldn’t always collide,” Dumolien added.
A Shawnee Mission South team also plunged in support of the Special Olympics.
One of the district’s strategic plan beliefs is that “Every individual has inherent worth and deserves to be valued and celebrated.”
Seeing support from across the district, through donations and Plunge participants was very appreciated, noted Amy Mesa, Shawnee Mission West special education teacher.
“It shows we’re committed to including everybody,” Mesa added.
Unified Sports Highlights
The Shawnee Mission School District has a lot to celebrate in its first official year of Unified Sports in every high school.
Shawnee Mission East and Shawnee Mission South both had teams qualify for the first state Unified Bowling tournament.
That wasn’t the only accomplishment for Unified Sports at Shawnee Mission South. The high school was among 25 across the country named to the 2021 ESPN honor roll as part of its Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools National Recognition Program. SM South was included in the Class of 2021 National Banner Unified Champion Schools by Special Olympics. Schools that receive this recognition meet 10 standards of excellence and “exude a sense of collaboration, engagement, and respect for all members of the student body and staff.” Shawnee Mission South has students competing in Unified bocce and basketball. They also often have Unified athletes front-and-center at school pep rallies and other events.
“They have gone above and beyond and are a prime example of what you want a school to look like,” according to Taylor Obersteadt, Unified Champion Schools Manager with Special Olympics Kansas.
In addition, John Johnson, athletic director at Shawnee Mission South, was recently presented with a Spirit of Sport recognition from the Kansas State High School Activities Association. He was recognized in part for his research, organization, and advocacy that led to the KSHSAA Unified Bowling State Championship.
The opportunities for inclusion and personal growth for athletes and partners have been immeasurable, according to Sara Simpson, special education teacher and unified bowling coach at Shawnee Mission South.
“For the first time, some of them are pushing past frustration and persevering at a task because they know that their team is counting on them,” Simson shared. “For the first time, some of them are sticking with something even when it’s hard. John has given us a gift far greater than a sport as he has championed Unified Athletics.”