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Named a National Banner Unified Champion School

When the unified basketball and bowling teams from Cheektowaga Central School District compete this year, they will have brand-new uniforms to wear and bragging rights on being named one of the state’s first ever National Banner Unified Champion Schools.

Cheektowaga Central School District has been named one of New York State’s first-ever National Banner Unified Champion Schools for its development of a unified sports program that includes a bowling, basketball and volleyball team.

Cheektowaga joins Guilderland, Iroquois and Niagara Falls in earning the distinction, made by Special Olympics North America, marking the highest level of achievement within the Unified Sports movement.

Unified sports pair students with and without intellectual disabilities playing on the same team. Cheektowaga offers bowling during the winter season, basketball during the spring season and is piloting a extramural volleyball team this fall.

But the impact on the student-athletes extends beyond the gymnasium courts and local bowling alleys into the school hallways and the community.

“Unified Sports has had a tremendous positive impact on everyone involved with this program. Our hallways have definitely changed in such a positive way as we continue to include all of our students in meaningful events throughout our school year,” said Brian Hickson, Athletic Director/Dean of Students, Cheektowaga Central School District.

Last winter marked the second season for the unified bowling team and the 16 student-athletes celebrated many firsts. The team was advertised on the spring sports poster, had their individual and team pictures done by the photographer, went to Lasertron as a team building activity and participated in the Playmakers camp. Team members were also invited to run in the Special Olympic Torch run and speak at Delaware North on behalf of Unified Champion Schools. The bowling team finished last year with a record of 5 and 1. 

The unified athletes won the 2018 Cool School Challenge at the Special Olympics Polar Plunge. “In their second Polar Plunge they increased the number from 26 plungers to 51 plungers and over 70 family and friends came out to support Special Olympics. Fundraising went from $2,604 in 2017 to $4,392 in 2018 to win the Cool School Challenge,” said Brian Pane, Cheektowaga Central School District Unified Sports coordinator and coach of the bowling team.

Andy Sedor coaches basketball which had 27 participants last spring. “It was the first year that we were able to play five athletes on the court for an entire quarter in three consecutive games. It was the first year we scored 74 points in a game and the first year we won first place in our division for the Unified Basketball tournament,” said Sedor. The unified team was also part of a Spectrum News - Buffalo Bills venture to name an Athlete/Partner of the Week and a Coach of the Week. 

On unified teams, there are leadership opportunities for the student partners on the team to assist with coaching, overseeing the athletes, as well as partnering with them during games.

Last year unified volleyball was offered as an extramural program with Iroquois High School and drew 20 participants. This fall it’s being piloted as a extramural unified team with Iroquois and Starpoint High Schools.

“Our participating staff members provide a platform for us to be united as one group for a common cause of inclusion for all. Coach Pane and Coach Sedor and many others behind the scenes work tirelessly to continue to provide a nurturing atmosphere that puts a smile on everyone’s face. Congratulations to everyone who puts in the time for such a noble cause,” said Hickson.

A Unified Champion School receiving national banner recognition is one that has demonstrated the highest commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 standards of excellence. The standards were developed by a panel of leaders from Special Olympics and the education community nationally and include youth leadership and whole school engagement activities.

“The Unified Sports program has certainly had a tremendous impact upon many schools throughout New York state,” said Robert J. Zayas, executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, which offers interscholastic Unified Sports in partnership with Special Olympics New York. “The recognition of these four schools is a testament to the dedicated efforts of their administration and student body to find new and innovative ways to create a school culture that truly benefits all students. We are extremely proud of these member schools.”