As San Benito High educators, Casandra Guerrero and Paulette Cobb always have short- and long-term goals in view.
But come Friday, they’re simply going to be cherishing the moment when ESPN and the Special Olympics will be on campus to present a banner to the school recognizing it as a Top 5 Special Olympics Unified Champion School for 2021.
The April 29 festivities will be highlighted by a 10:25am rally at Andy Hardin Stadium, which will include the entire 3,400 San Benito High student body, ESPN and the Special Olympics of Northern California. At 1pm, the National Champion Unified Banner will be formally presented during a lunchtime ceremony.
“I am overwhelmed and excited for Friday,” said Guerrero, a special education program specialist. “It kind of feels surreal.”
Cobb, the San Benito High School District director of specialized student services and special education, knows everyone at the school can hold their heads high.
“I can tell people and share how wonderful and great we are, but I really feel like Friday is going to be evidence of all the work we’ve done,” she said. “The most important thing is the world can look in and say that is good and we can be proud of ourselves by including and treating people with respect and making progress for all people.”
For the past four years, San Benito High has been recognized as a Unified Champion School, but the National Banner School and ESPN Top 5 designation are firsts. SBHS, which is the only school in Northern California to receive the honors, had to meet 10 national qualifying standards of excellence set by the Special Olympics and the education community.
“San Benito High School has been a leader in providing inclusive programming for its students for many years,” Heather Jones, vice president, School and Youth Services, Special Olympics Northern California and Nevada, said on espn.com. “They have gone above and beyond to provide countless opportunities for their students in all three components of the Unified Champion School’s program and have created a school culture with meaningful inclusion at the forefront.”
The ESPN story noted the school’s effort to build a culture of acceptance and inclusion on campus, including Circle of Friends, the renowned inclusive campus club that was created 12 years ago by Guerrero to promote an environment and culture of inclusion for all students through daily lunch meetings and other activities.
Circle of Friends and the Gifted Games—an annual event that provides the opportunity for students with disabilities to participate in athletic events in a non-competitive atmosphere—were the forerunners to a school that now has Unified soccer and basketball teams and several gifted sports teams to go along with numerous events.
“Circle of Friends has become way bigger than anything we could’ve imagined,” Guerrero said. “You plant a seed and now there have been 12 years of a generation of students who have been committed, passionate and continued to make it grow.”
Circle of Friends holds annual events, including an inclusive prom and participates in school-wide events such as Club Info Day, Homecoming Parade and Baler Lunch Time. They also collaborate with the Associated Student Body, which serves as a unifying agent.
The club has spawned generations of inclusive ideas, concepts and teams, eventually leading to the National Banner School and ESPN Top 5 designations. The club began as a pilot program of 50 kids but has grown to 200 participants.
“It has to start somewhere and it just grows and organically things come up because you’re visible and you’re making inclusion important,” Guerrero said. “Everyone from the cafeteria workers to maintenance to the bus drivers to the teachers to the administration, everyone is a part of this effort of inclusion. It really does take a whole village.”
Because SBHS has fostered an inclusive environment starting with the Gifted Games in 2005, it already had a solid foundation and the building blocks in place to become a potential National Unified Champion School. And once it started partnering with the Special Olympics a handful of years ago and saw what the criteria was, it committed itself to the process.
That meant working with several different departments on campus and various stakeholders to get on the same page, and for coaches to be unified in their Special Olympic training practices and methodology, among other things.
Once SBHS felt it had all the components in place, it applied for National Unified status in 2021 and was told earlier this year that it had been awarded as a National Unified Champion School. The added designation from ESPN served as a bonus.
“I didn’t even know ESPN had a Top 5, so that was a complete surprise and exciting and a testament to all the people who contributed to this over the years,” Guerrero said.
The special education program—which has gone above and beyond for inclusion—at SBHS serves over 300 students and runs programming for all 13 areas of qualifying disability. Their goals of inclusion, advocacy and respect have been validated with the Special Olympics banner honor, and yet the staff including Cobb and Guerrero are not resting on their laurels.
“We have a Unified Prom at the end of the year which is always amazing so who knows what’s next, but a goal is to always keep our mind open to what comes next so we can have a space ready and willing when someone is offering,” Cobb said. “That’s all we really want, is for students to make an impact and make their life bigger and make the world a more inclusive place.”
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]