Special Olympics Initiative Changing the Landscape of Billings Schools

February 2024

article by morgan williams | photos courtesy of Special Olympics

Special Olympics has impacted the lives of those with disabilities since the late 1960s, but now their sights are set higher – they’ve set out to shape an entire generation. Special Olympics' newest initiative, Unified Champion Schools®, is a program for schools Pre-K through university that intentionally promotes meaningful social inclusion by bringing together students with and without intellectual disabilities to create inclusive school environments. Eleven Billings schools – including all three public high schools – have taken the Unified Champion School pledge. West High Special Education Teacher and Special Olympics Local Program Coordinator Samantha Drange says it is changing the game for students of every grade and ability. 

For those unfamiliar with Special Olympics’ history, it’s helpful to know that the now global movement was borne from a backyard summer day camp started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Shriver had a sister with an intellectual disability and quickly recognized that the programs and options were limited for someone like her. Shriver strongly believed that sports could be a common ground to unite people from all walks of life, and six years after her summer camp started, the first Special Olympics Games were held in Chicago, Illinois. Today, Special Olympics International serves over 6 million people with intellectual disabilities in 200 countries. 

In Montana, Billings boasts the largest Special Olympics population in the state, but historically, sports for those with disabilities had primarily remained isolated from the rest of the student body. This is no longer the case, thanks to the Unified Champion Schools initiative. The initiative is built on three pillars: Unified Sports, inclusive youth leadership, and whole-school engagement. Each school has the freedom to implement these goals creatively. 

The commitment has taken buy-in from students and staff alike, but Drange says it has been exciting to see students and administration work to make lasting positive changes. Billings West, Billings Senior, and Billings Skyview each now boast a unified physical education class; they’re working toward a class where 50% of the students have intellectual disabilities and 50% do not. The goal is for athletes to play alongside one another, encouraging a competitive nature and showcasing ability, helping prepare Special Olympics athletes for their respective games. 

To promote whole-school engagement, Billings schools are also participating in the annual Spread the Word to End the Word® Day, which takes place on the first Wednesday of March. The aim is for society to stop and think about its use of the R-word and to rally people to pledge respect toward all individuals. The celebrations vary from school to school. West High hosts a basketball game where a unified team takes on the Seniors during an all-school assembly. The teachers also fundraise in advance to buy Special Olympics swag, which is then awarded to students who have shown exemplary respect and encouragement toward their peers with disabilities. Across town, Washington Elementary hosts a respect challenge in February. Students can earn respect tickets, and the challenge is capped off with a celebration on March 7th to celebrate the winning house. 

Back at West High, the administration has added an elective peer tutoring class, where students without disabilities can come alongside those with disabilities in academics. Drange, in her 16th year of teaching, says, “The learning that naturally comes from that partnership is way more valuable than me standing up teaching.” 

The Unified Champion Schools program is forming the next generation in powerful ways. Drange said nothing has been more impactful than seeing varsity athletes high-fiving her students in the hallway and knowing them by name. Beth Gregg, Special Education Teacher at Washington Elementary and Special Olympics Local Program Coordinator for Elementary Schools, says Billings students are getting an opportunity to compete in something they otherwise wouldn’t, and it’s making “good citizens who understand and value our unique differences.” 

Originally printed in the February 2024 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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