SPARTA, NJ -Unified sports program is coming to Sparta. A pair of resolutions approved by the Sparta Board of Education established a Special Olympics Unified Champion School program at the high school.
“The Special Olympics Unified Champion School program brings together students with and without intellectual disabilities in three main ways: through inclusive leadership, whole school engagement and unified sports,” Jennifer Schock, Special Education teacher, Special Olympics coach and Unified basketball coach said.
The Sparta Board of Education has discussed this initiative, spearheaded by board member Robert Zywicki for several months. The district received a $23,000 grant from Special Olympics New Jersey Unified Champion Schools to support the new program in Sparta.
“I am extremely proud that the board of education voted unanimously to establish Unified sports in Sparta,” Zywicki said. This inclusive program will create opportunities for both the special needs and able-bodied athletes who will train and complete alongside one another.”
Resolution PP 114-21 established the sidebar agreement with the Sparta Educational Association to include a winter and spring coaching position for the program, according to the agenda.
Schock will be coaching the Unified athletes. She has been the head coach of the Spartan Special Olympics team for the past three years. Sparta Special Olympic athletes have competed in track and field at Area 3 and state level events, indoor rowing events at Princeton and bowling competitions.
Kristina Acedevo, Bill Chadwick, Shannon Hobby-Psensky and Tina Johnson have all worked with Schock coaching and growing the program from competing in track and field meets the first year through the foundation of the Unified program in the fourth year.
“Each year we have set goals to expand our reach and include more students through in-person sports activities as well as social events,” Schock said.
Sparta High School Athletic Director Steve Stoner and Special Services Supervisor Adrienne Castorina “are true believers in our vision to bring an inclusive culture to Sparta public schools and are helping to implement the program in stages throughout the district” Schock said.
At the high school the program will begin with the formation of co-ed unified basketball team to compete during the winter season and a unified track and field team to compete in the spring, Schock said.
“With the addition of Unified sports, we as a district are hoping more individuals will have an interest in spreading the culture of inclusion,” Schock said.
At the Sparta Township Council meeting last week Deputy Mayor Christine Quinn said Castorina and Zywicki attended the recreation committee. She said they discussed the Unified program, possibly providing opportunities throughout the community, in her liaison report about the recreation committee meeting.
Several other area districts have Unified programs, providing the opportunity for competition. The players on the Unified teams will wear Sparta High School uniforms and represent their school when they compete against other school’s Unified teams.
Chatham, Mount Olive High School, Randolph, West Morris Central High School and West Morris Mendham High School have Unified basketball teams.
Highpoint Regional High School, Jefferson Township High School, Morristown High School, Mount Olive High School, Newton High School, Parsippany High School, Parsippany Hills High School, Vernon High School, West Morris High School and West Morris Mendham High School all have Unified Track and Field teams.
Chatham, Morristown High School, Parsippany High School, Parsippany Hills High School, Randolph and West Morris Mendham High School have Unified bowling teams.
Since June 2016, Special Olympics has partnered with NJSIAA to support the Unified athletes, by expanding opportunities throughout the state, according to the New Jersey Special Olympics program. This partnership set standards for practicing and competition.
During the 2019-2020 school year the NJSIAA offered state level competitions in Unified bowling, basketball and outdoor track, based on mutually created standards for qualification, according to Special Olympics New Jersey.
Special Olympics New Jersey recently updated their Winter and Spring Return to Activities Guidelines moving the start date for indoor activity back to January 4, due to the pandemic. This move is in addition to other health and safety guidelines.
"We could not be more excited to bring Unified Sports to Sparta High School and to have a program that supports our vision of celebrating inclusion, the celebration of diversity, and collaboration among all of our students,” Sparta High School principal Ronnie Spring said.