By MJ Hippern
When I meet people and tell them I am a high school teacher they usually ask what I teach. My response is Physical Education and all things Unified. This always is followed up with “What’s Unified?” According to Special Olympics, the program "...is aimed at promoting social inclusion through intentionally planned and implemented activities affecting systems-wide change... This is accomplished by implementing inclusive sports, inclusive youth leadership opportunities, and whole school engagement.” At Dover High School, our unified program brings students with and without disabilities together to learn, play, and enjoy each other’s friendships.
How did it all begin? Let me take you to the year 2007. At the time, I had a Freshman Physical Education class with a student who we will refer to as "Luke." Luke was a senior who transferred from a school in Texas that did not offer physical education and needed the credit to graduate. Luke was not overly excited to be in class where most of his classmates were four years younger. We also had another student we will call "Corey." Corey was a Special Olympics athlete who had few social skills and did not always act like a ninth grader. Corey also was not overly excited about class as his classmates tried to exclude him from some of our activities. One day in class I asked Luke to be Corey’s partner and he agreed. Class ran smoothly from that point on. A few days later, I walked by the cafeteria and witnessed something that made me think about inclusion. Luke invited Corey to eat lunch with him. It was not a big deal for Luke, but it was colossal for Corey. The look on Corey’s face was as if he had won the lottery! From watching that exchange and talking to our DHS Athletic Director, Peter Wotton, we begin Unified Wellness that next semester.
I thought our program was unique until Mary Conroy, CEO of Special Olympics New Hampshire, approached me. She asked me to attend a NEC Conference in 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska. My eyes were opened to the fact that the whole country had embraced the Special Olympics unified model for high school students. When I came back from the conference, New Hampshire joined the bandwagon and has never looked back! Though a softball team first represented New Hampshire in Unified Sports in 1989, Unified Sports didn’t begin at the High School level until SONH and the NHIAA teamed up to offer Unified Sports as sanctioned teams in 2010.
Now, flash to the present, where Dover High School currently has eight Unified classes offered in its program of studies and three NHIAA sanctioned Unified sports (of which we hold two state Unified Volleyball titles and one state Unified Soccer title). In the past we have offered a Unified Cheer team. We also have a Unified club that organizes a Unified Semi Formal as well as the Yes! I Can Road Race. In 2018 both Dover and Alvirne high school became the first New Hampshire schools to be honored with becoming National Unified Champion schools. Additionally, Dover had the good fortune to collaborate with the National fitness foundation and Special Olympics make a video as a resource tool in 2018: https://inclusivehealth.specialolympics.org/resources/tools/inclusion-in-physical-education
What impact has the Unified program had on Dover High School? Walking the halls, you will find a climate where our Special Needs students feel they belong. Come to a class and see how friendships have been formed among all students. Many of our typical peers have found a career choice that suits them to a tee. Walk into a class and find a teacher who is renewed every day to teach a group of students who truly are eager to learn and be in this inclusive environment. Unified also goes beyond the classroom. A while back, I asked one of our parents to write a parent’s perspective of how unified has impacted their family. This is a portion of what she wrote:
“As a mother of two children with Down syndrome, I am happy to share my thoughts on the unified programs at Dover High… it has been an incredible transformation for both my son as well as my daughter.
While my son has always been fortunate to have good friendships with his grade level peers, the level of interaction outside of the school classroom setting was minimal. Being a contributing member on the baseball team at the elementary school level became unrealistic as middle school sports in general became more competitive.
The level of acceptance and inclusion for my daughter amongst her grade level peers dropped dramatically at the beginning of middle school. This eventually contributed to some related behaviors and withdrawal by my daughter, who didn’t feel she belonged, but struggled to even understand or be self-aware of this situation.
In addition, as the curriculum became more challenging with each passing year, full classroom inclusion became more challenging as well for both of my children. Friendships became more difficult to solidify as peers’ schedules filled with extracurricular activities that were not always practically accessible for them.
Then they entered high school at Dover High and a whole new world opened up. They enrolled in Unified classes and signed up for Unified Sports. The classroom and after school sports programs are a combination of youth with and without disabilities. The mentor students, or partners, gives them the ability to play, while at the same time learning leadership skills and teamwork… not to mention they form new friendships with students with disabilities based on their similarities, not their differences. It is an opportunity for everyone to shine. The results are simply magical to observe. Partners and athletes supporting one another… high fives exchanged across both teams, and most importantly, an atmosphere of helping every individual shine and reach their full potential, while also giving encouragement and a pat on the shoulder when a shot misses. It perfectly exemplifies acceptance and inclusion of all abilities. The effect on self-confidence and self-esteem for all involved is profound, as I have evidenced with my own two children.
The level of inclusion and acceptance my son and daughter experience as a result of the unified programs… both on the court and in the classroom… is nothing short of extraordinary. It has changed the entire climate of DHS hallways. The friendships they have formed extend beyond… out into the community. They receive rides home after practices from friends who are juniors and seniors… they go out for pizza or to the local coffee shop… and they attend an annual unified semi-formal with this amazing group of individuals. My son has gone to a concert with a buddy who is now in college and who contacts my son to get together when he is home on break. My daughter regularly does makeup and hair with some college friends when they are home on break and will occasionally exchange/share clothing. These are the kind of friendships I have always hoped my children would have… genuine, non-judgmental, and loyal. Is there really anything more we could ask for, as parents of children with disabilities, than for them to be accepted in the community, have meaningful friendships, and be happy?
“It takes a village” and I’m extremely grateful to be living in Dover where unified classes and sports are thriving and providing my children the opportunity for meaningful and lasting friendships and opportunities resulting in rich and fulfilling lives.
MJ Hippern is a physical education instructor at Dover High School where she has taught for the past 21 years. She was also an educator at Winnacunnet High School for 15 years before that. She serves as the Unified liaison, coordinating numerous events and sports at the school. She helps coach the Unified Basketball team and is the head Unified Volleyball coach. Before she retires, she aspires to spread unified opportunities throughout the entire Dover school system.
MJ cherishes her experiences with the Unified program and its athletes, youth mentors, and parents. Our community cherishes the heartfelt contributions of MJ Hippern and the numerous opportunities she has provided to our athletes and students! We all thank you for your relentless dedication to this outstanding program!
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