This winter, some special education students from Seneca Valley School District are partnering with their general education classmates for an exciting new sport being added to the district’s offerings.
The Seneca Valley School District Board of Education in October 2017 approved an agreement with the Pennsylvania Special Olympics to start an Interscholastic Unified Sports Indoor Bocce program.
Unified Sports partner people of the same age, with and without special needs, to compete in various sports. For Seneca Valley, the journey to starting the bocce program began after Athletic Director Heather Lewis saw the Unified Sports track races at the state championships.
“It’s fabulous seeing these athletes competing in this track meet,” Lewis says.
The process of getting Seneca Valley involved was a quick one. This past fall, a representative from the Pennsylvania Special Olympics reached out to the school district’s Special Education Director Gerald Miller.
“They were looking for another school up in (Butler County), and we agreed to jump on board,” Lewis says. “I think it’s awesome. We have a sizable population of students that we can draw from for this, so it was a natural fit.”
Before making the jump to track, school districts involved with Unified Sports are asked to first start a bocce program. Lewis says the squad size is between six and eight students.
“It is coed, for boys and girls grades 9-12, and it is proportional number of high school students who are Special Olympics eligible and students without intellectual disabilities,” Lewis says. “They are partners and teammates in this (sport). Right now, I think we’ve identified six student-athletes that will be part of our first bocce team.”
Lewis says practices begin Dec. 5, and the season goes through the middle of March.
“They practice twice a week, and there will be three competitions for the team after the New Year,” she says. “What is really cool is they have a regional championship, and from that, the winner goes to the state championship. What they do is they run the state bocce finals in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association basketball championships. At halftime of the first game, they award the medals to the team that wins. It’s just so well thought out by the Special Olympics and the PIAA.”
Even the court setup and logistics have been made easy for Seneca Valley to implement the program.
“We’re provided a court to set up that is mobile, and we can take it anywhere,” Lewis says. “And the way the Special Olympics and the PIAA have gotten on board to make this a meaningful experience for the kids and a meaningful opportunity — getting districts to get involved and to provide this for their kids — I think it is a brilliant idea. They have found a sport that is easy for us to manage in the wintertime. We’re all fighting for gym space (in the winter) with basketball and wrestling, and with this, you can practice in a cafeteria and set up the court there.”
Seneca Valley is also partnering with Slippery Rock University for the bocce program.
“Our coach is actually provided by Slippery Rock University,” Lewis says. “The coach is a graduate student in the adapted physical education program.”
It’s a win-win — the college student gets great experience, and the school district gets a coach who knows the sport.
Lewis says the district is lucky to have the involvement of Slippery Rock University.
“Their collaboration and involvement with our district is awesome,” she says.
Additionally, two teachers from Seneca Valley will serve as team liaisons.
Overall, Lewis hopes this program yields wonderful experiences for the students involved.
“I want all of the athletes on the team to walk away saying that was the coolest thing they have ever done,” she says. “Whether they win a medal or not, it really is irrelevant. I want them to walk away having pride and having been excited about wearing a Seneca Valley uniform. I want them to look at themselves as an athlete.
“In this age group, it’s all about providing opportunities to the kids. When you take kids who are Special Olympics eligible, and you take kids who are general education students, they get that partnership and relationship. They get to be teammates. How cool is that for our kids? I want them to be coming back next year, asking when we’re starting bocce practice.”