BEMIDJI – After Bemidji High School became the first school in the area to become a Unified Champion School around six years ago, the Bemidji school district now boasts being the first district in the state to implement Unified programming district-wide.

A Memorandum of Understanding was signed by Superintendent Tim Lutz and Special Olympics Minnesota President Dave Dorn at a virtual conference on Sept. 29. Following this, the district is now in partnership with Special Olympics Minnesota to expand Unified’s activities to Bemidji Middle School and the elementary schools.

“We are proud to partner with Special Olympics to implement Unified Champion Schools Program district-wide,” Physical Education and Developmental Adapted Physical Education teacher Jacqueline Stoffel said in a release. "I've seen inclusion and kindness around this program at the high school level and can't wait to see this spread throughout our schools and community."

Unified Champion Schools aims to unify students with and without disabilities through sports, whole school activities and leadership programs in order to promote inclusion, acceptance and respect.

Special Olympics Minnesota provides year-round sports training and competition in 17 Olympic-style sports, for which Bemidji Area Schools currently offers basketball, track and field, snowshoeing, aquatics and bowling.

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District expansion

Stoffel explained the district’s involvement began around six years ago and detailed certain requirements that schools must enforce to be considered a Unified school.

The main requirements include three pillars: Unified Sports, Inclusive Youth Leadership and Whole School Engagement.

“There’s an à la carte of things to choose from, but you have to do at least one thing in each of those pillars,” Stoffel said. “In the high school, we offer five different sports. We have run school engagement campaigns by doing the Polar Plunge right before COVID started. The week we were supposed to complete that, COVID hit.”

Stoffel continued, “We have expanded to include the other schools and sent a cart of books to each school that are inclusive in nature. Kids can learn about differences and disabilities that way, along with an inclusive poster series.”

Yet another way the entire district has gotten involved came with a bowling tournament consisting of students from the high school, middle school, Gene Dillon, Lincoln and Northern Elementary Schools.

With funding through Special Olympics US on a two-year basis, more students from across the district will reap the benefits of the range of activities offered.

“There are a lot of benefits from (this program) both for students with and without disabilities,” Stoffel said. “It really opens the door to the inclusion piece and disability awareness.”

Speaking up

Stoffel, along with BHS students Sam Wilson and William Duncan, spoke during an Oct. 18 school board meeting about the Unified Program.

“Some of the most important things I’ve learned are how to be a good friend, to be a team player, how to work hard for the things I want and to stand up for the inclusion of all students,” Duncan said during the meeting. “I hope that many other students can have the same opportunities that I have had.”

Speaking on his Unified PE class combining students with and without disabilities, Wilson said, “I really wish I had the opportunity that my Unified class gives me at a younger age to build these relationships sooner. Moving forward, I would like to see Unified classes implemented in the middle school and elementary schools.”

The district offers eight sections of Unified PE each school year and makes available many other activities -- Unified Yard Games Day, Unified Winter Formal, Advocate at Capitol Hill Day, Unified Club and leadership summits -- all address the three Unified pillars in some way.

Wilson and Duncan are also the only two students in Minnesota to earn spots at a 10-day leadership conference in June at the 2022 USA Special Olympic Games in Orlando.

Such experiences convinced Lutz of the importance of the district’s association with Special Olympics Minnesota for all students.

Prior to the memorandum being signed, Lutz met with Special Olympics Minnesota in a couple of virtual meetings.

“We learned quite a bit about the importance of Special Olympics for our students," Lutz said, "and could easily see the benefits that our students would receive."

There are currently over 200 Minnesota schools implementing Unified Schools programming. More information can be found on the Special Olympics Minnesota website at www.specialolympics.org.