On February 26th to March 1st, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools hosted its third annual conference in the great city of San Antonio, Texas! This year’s theme was celebrating the first ten years of Unified Champion Schools and planning for the next ten years. We had our largest attendance to date from US and International Programs along with several of our partners.
We held a few pre-conference workshops like Young Athletes, new staff orientation and a Program CEOs session for attendees based on roles and interest. The Global Unified Schools team took advantage of the convening to hold meetings with regional staff outside of North America. The Global Unified Schools team is different from the Unified Champion Schools team since they work on the global scale with schools and youth in their regions. The Global Team attending our conference gives them insight and ideas on how they can activate schools and youth in their regions. Unified Champion Schools is a strong model for the Global Unified Schools team to assist them with developing similar programming back in their regions.
Our Opening Night event was a fireside chat with Program CEOs from across the United States and Canada. The fireside chat was moderated by my own State Program President, Rick Jeffery, SO Virginia. Everyone on the panel discussed their thoughts on 10 years of Unified Champion Schools and the challenges and growth throughout those ten years. It was pointed out by Marybeth McMahon, President and CEO of Special Olympics Massachusetts, that we are celebrating three anniversaries in 2018. 50th Anniversary of Special Olympics, 30th Anniversary of Unified Sports and 10th Anniversary of Unified Champion Schools. Now those anniversaries are worth celebrating! There was a moment of silence for the late Jim Balamaci, President and CEO of Special Olympics Alaska, prior to the panel discussion. Of course, we can’t forget we learned how to line dance with instruction from Unified Club students from Alamo Heights High School prior to the panel discussion.
Our first full day of conference kicked off with a general session on Special Olympics and School Districts. The overall message of this session was school districts can benefit from having Special Olympics and Unified Champion Schools in them and so would the students. We had two rounds of breakout sessions before we did our school visit to Alamo Heights High School. The school visit to Alamo Heights High School was AMAZING! They put on a great assembly and performance. Andrea Cahn and Terry Jackson of the Office of Special Education Programs at the US Department of Education gave a few remarks and presented a plaque to Alamo Heights High School. We then had the opportunity to tour the school before heading to the track for a fun walk while being cheered on by the school. Now, that is a school visit to remember!
Day Two of our conference started off with an “updates and innovations” general session with a Twitter Question feed. After the general session, we had a physical activity and social break. We had three physical activities going on. Group fitness, a reflection walk on the world famous River Walk and a Eunice Kennedy Shriver Scavenger Hunt. The EKS Scavenger Hunt was a smash hit since we saw a good deal of attendees taking on the challenge.
Introducing this physical activity and social break was a great idea to reenergize everyone! We had more breakout sessions, three rotations to be exact. We also had an awesome presentation done by Kantar Futures on the current generation of students. Did you know that 76 percent of centennials form groups of individuals in order to make small changes in their behaviors that can make a real difference in the world? That is awesome! Now, you ask what better way can you wrap up the day. How about a river cruise on the River Walk and Special Olympics Texas Night?! Everyone enjoyed themselves and there was some line dancing going on throughout the night with the live band. (I see a theme here!)
The final day of our conference started off with the final general session on visualizing the next 10 years of Unified Champion Schools. The panel of Program CEOs from the opening session came back up and told everyone what their vision of Unified Champion Schools is for 10 years from now. We also announced Special Olympics Southern California will be the host of our 2019 conference. In the spirit of Special Olympics, Special Olympics Texas passed on the torch (with law enforcement actually there with the real torch) to Special Olympics Southern California thus handing off next year’s conference. We had our final two breakout sessions to wrap up the tremendous experience in San Antonio.
Throughout these three days, it is breathtaking to see all of the attendees building relationships within their State Programs and networking with other State Programs. It is essential we share best practices and create networks among all of our peers for the continuous growth of Unified Champion Schools. One day, we will be a mainstream piece in schools and their cultures. Until then, we just have keep on working together. As for my vision for the next 10 years of Unified Champion Schools, I want to all 52 US State Programs involved in Unified Champion Schools. Also, Unified Champion Schools being a part of the school culture in all the schools we are in.
Lookout Southern California! Here we come in 2019!