By Benjamin Joe
After coming out of executive session, last Wednesday night’s Niagara-Wheatfield Regular School Board Meeting began with two presentations.
In one of these, Athletics Director Matt McKenna introduced Luke Foltz and Doug Aimes of the Unified Sports program in the hopes of the School Board approving the integration of this into Niagara-Wheatfield schools.
“Unified Sports came to us at Section VI about five years ago,” McKenna said. “It involves unified basketball and bowling. We’re proposing that Niagara-Wheatfield Central Schools allow their sport program to have unified basketball.”
Foltz is from the Special Olympics, an organization that McKenna said was a great resource for himself and his department. Aimes, the section chair for Section VI for Unified Sports, was also in attendance.
“If we talk to our peers, and we talk to 39 schools who now have Unified Sports with Section VI, which is just astounding, the one thing that they’ll all say is: ‘It’s a no brainer.’ What I mean by that is, when we see these students with intellectual disabilities merging together with the general education population on the basketball court, in the hallways, it’s amazing,” McKenna said.
“We’re changing the game with Unified Sports,” Foltz said. “We’re changing the game for people with intellectual disabilities to give them a platform within the school district to really shine. It’s not just the sport, it’s in school. It’s before school, after-school, high fives in the lunch room – whatever it is, we want to see this in every school district, and we’d love to bring it here.”
Board member Gina Terbot asked why just basketball and bowling?
“Why only two sports?” she asked. “I run a soccer program for disabled kids and adults, so why only two sports?”
“We’re currently exploring different sports to add on,” Foltz said. “We’re in the process of doing that from a special needs standpoint in partnership with New York Public High Schools Athletic Association. We have to make sure our rules coincide with their rules, and we can come up with a joint rule to add within the school district; and finding out what the next sport is and hearing from different athletic directors and hearing what they think is manageable.”
“Are we saying that kids, in regard to teams, are being discriminated against and they can’t try out for basketball now?” board member Darren Sneed asked.
“No, they can try out,” Superintendent Daniel Ljiljanich said after Sneed explained he was concerned as to whether students with intellectual disabilities were allowed to try out for existing teams. “The students who don’t make the team can all try out for this.”
Aimes went further into the nuances of who can play when he said, “We play (Unified Sports) in the spring, because general education students or anybody else who played basketball in the winter, whether it’s modified, JV or your varsity, by the rules that … we all have to play by in New York State Public Athletic Association, you can only play that season once a year.”
Aimes explained that while the winter players could come to Unified Sports as assistants, help with practices and aid in coaching, they would not be players; they could only sit on the bench “in suit and tie” during the games.
Foltz explained Niagara-Wheatfield would receive $2,000 in funding initially.
“In the first year of funding, if the school can show they are going to provide some students to come to our Inclusive Leadership Summit. We’ll have over 20 schools at Starpoint on Jan. 8 and they’re going to talk about different leadership roles they take at their schools,” he said. “If they (the school) can do that and they start a unified basketball program, we offer $2,000 for the first year, then we offer $1,000 the second year, in the hopes that, by the third year, the program will be sustainable.”
The board members were enthusiastic in their support for the program, which would start in the spring of 2020. Terbot asked if she could make a motion to approve the program and the board unanimously voted with her and the program.
In Other News
•Ljiljanich recognized Amanda Jasper and Brooke Harris as they join the New York State Master Teacher Program. He awarded them certificates for the honor.
“It’s really important when our teachers model life-long learning, and the importance of continuing and improving their craft. They do that because they know that’s really good for students,” Ljiljanich said. “I am very honored to present to you, two of our own teachers, Amanda Jasper and Brook Harris.”
•Ljiljanich made a plea to the audience.
“We need bus drivers,” he said. “If you know somebody who would be interested in driving bus, we need them to come here and apply.”
Over the next couple of months, the district will hire many different positions, including bus drivers, Ljiljanich said.
“If you’re interested in driving a bus and you’re out there, please come to our district; we’d love to have you,” he said.