It’s a sunny Tuesday morning on the field at Martin Luther King High School. Pharrell’s “Happy” is blasting from the speakers, students are dancing on the sidelines, the marching band is out, and three soccer fields are set up.
Students arriving by the busload from throughout the city are here to play in an Interscholastic Unified Sports soccer scrimmage.
The program, run by the Special Olympics, brings together special education students — that includes students in autistic support, life skills support and emotional support — with general education students. The two groups take a class together, practice together and play against other high schools. Today at Martin Luther King High School there are teams from a total of five high schools ready to take the field.
The program helps special education students develop their athletic abilities, but its truest aim is to promote tolerance and understanding. That’s the kind of benefit that lasts long after the cleats are put away, says Nadirah McCauley, director of the program.
“Students that don’t typically talk to each other or engage with each other during the school day are now friends on and off the field. They are in class together building friendships,” she says. “Oftentimes you see the two populations segregated and there’s a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding between the two populations.”
Every “athlete,” a student in special education, is paired with a “partner,” a student in traditional classes. The pair work together to learn the rules of the game and get comfortable on the field. Above all though, most say they are there to try to have fun.
Tyler Stokes is part of the special education program at Abraham Lincoln High School in Northeast Philadelphia. He’ll be graduating next year and has played soccer with his partner, Marisa Midgett, for three years. He says he “just likes to have fun and be friends.”
“We all have fun. We are just on the field … it doesn’t matter, disabilities or not, we all play together as a team. It’s just great,” she says.
Martin Luther King High School autistic support teacher Les Brown says this “leveling of the playing field” is the point. The special education students have the chance to be a part of the mainstream high school experience.
“I think it promotes students really recognizing that, no matter what their disability is, they can still grow, they can still develop, they can still have fun,” says Brown.
That’s a sentiment well reflected in the opening lines of the day, when a student reads out loud the Special Olympics oath to kick off the day’s games.
“Let me win, and if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”