Homewood-Flossmoor High School has a new banner to proudly display: National Banner Unified Champion School.
H-F has strived to have students from all levels work together through partnerships in sports and classroom activities. The efforts put H-F in a unique status as one of only two high schools in Illinois recognized by Special Olympics for this honor.
Students and staff celebrated this accomplishment of inclusion at a ceremony Nov. 21 when representatives of Special Olympics came to make the presentation at H-F.
“Being a unified champion school is what a lot of schools aspire to be, and we’re already there,” principal Jerry Lee Anderson said.
“The big word in special education is equity. I want my students to have the same opportunity as anybody else, no less,” said teacher and Special Olympics coach David Dore, who has spearheaded H-F’s involvement in Special Olympics the past 12 years and started organizing unified teams of special education students and their H-F peers in 2012.
H-F has gone on to win the state unified basketball team title twice, made it to state competition in soccer and has students competing in track.
But H-F has gone beyond sports. To win the unified champion school status, H-F had to meet a 10-point standard of excellence developed by a national panel of educators and representatives of Special Olympics.
Today H-F has about 40 students from the general student population who are partnering with special education students, Dore said. He has developed a special education peer leadership class for those interested in working with and considering a career as special education teachers. H-F uses peer leaders in sports and to work with students in English, math, science and social science classes.
And H-F organizes outings, such as the fall hayride and trip to Dave & Buster’s restaurant and video arcade, to include special education students and their partners.
Student Judah Epperson, a senior from Flossmoor, got involved in unified sports last year. Since then, he’s gone on to be an H-F representative to the state’s Youth Activation Committee with his special education partner Donzel Marshall, a sophomore from Hazel Crest. They gave a presentation on H-F’s Special Olympics programs for the educational summit in Bloomington this semester.
“H-F wants to provide the best opportunities for their students in whatever area. I have an entrepreneurial spirit, and H-F allows for that. It allows me to try and innovate new things,” Dore said. “I think we’re a special place in a special community. This award is for the whole school.”
Shannon Cotter of Homewood was one of the first peer leaders at H-F in 2011. Her interest in inclusion helped her decide a career path, and she now is completing a master’s degree in special education.
She remembers when Elena Delle Donne, then with the Chicago Sky, came to H-F as a Special Olympics ambassador, and Cotter believes that really was the impetus for the unified teams taking off.
Cotter was a peer team member for girls basketball, but she decided the girls would have more fun as cheerleaders, so she organized a unified cheer squad.
Cotter said she is delighted by the success of the program. “It’s really evolved and I can’t believe where it’s at now.”
H-F is gaining a reputation for its inclusion work. In February senior Maggie McNellis of Homewood will travel with Donzel Marshall as Illinois’ representatives at a meeting in California about the work H-F is doing. The program, hosted by Special Olympics, will offer insights on how to be better leaders for inclusion efforts.
Dore said the work at H-F is a team effort. He thanked the school’s administration and his colleagues Katie Rice, Lauren Chasey, Tiffany Mucha, Brian McLaughlin, Cassie Miller, Katie Nieckula, Paula Crawford, Kathy Dreger, former director, and Angela Taylor, current director of special education.