Fife High School is known for having a great sports program, winning several state and league championships throughout their history in a wide array of competition. And on Wednesday, Oct. 2, the school was awarded yet another recognition for playing sports. This one, arguably, is the most prominent.
Fife High School was named in the top five schools in the U.S. — kindergarten through university — that best represent the Special Olympics’ 10 national standards of inclusion as defined by National School Recognition Program, making them an ESPN Top 5 National Banner Unified Champion School.
Becoming a Unified Champion School requires three components, according to the Special Olympics website, which are Unified Sports, whole school engagement, and youth leadership. By earning a ranking in the top five, the school exceeded these standards of inclusion, going above and beyond the other 7,500 schools considered.
Unified sports were created by the Special Olympics in 2008 to promote inclusiveness in schools. The idea is to have teams consist of players with a wide range of physical and mental abilities, so that every student can feel included and get to know fellow students in a fun setting.
“We started asking our athletes, ‘If we could improve one thing about your life, what would it be?’ And they very quickly came back at said ‘Make school not as scary,’” Dave Lenox, president of Special Olympics Washington, said.
Special Olympics then began troubleshooting ways to address this issue and began talking with other students for ideas and were inspired by what they found.
“Our athletes weren’t the only ones that felt socially isolated,” Lenox said. “They weren’t the only ones who were worried about bullying, and they weren’t the only ones who figured out that if you play sports with other people you can use that as a way to bridge the gaps. So, we shifted from doing something just for our athletes to doing something for the community and for every student in the school.”
Fife High School’s Unified program was created two years ago by student Zoie Breland with support from teachers and fellow students, according to Brandon Bakke, Fife High School principal. Breland said it was difficult to get the program underway, but once students and instructors learned about and experienced it, Unified really took off.
“Unified at Fife started out as just an idea, but it was an idea embraced by the students, our staff and our community,” Breland said. “I am truly honored to be representing not just an after-school sports program, but something greater. Unified has built friendships, memories and has ultimately changed the culture of our school.”
To congratulate Fife High School on their accomplishment, ESPN and Special Olympics presented a national banner at a school assembly on Wednesday. The whole school crowded into the gymnasium to watch the banner be raised up to the rafters, alongside the school’s state and league championship banners.
Student Lexi Steinmeyer, co-president of Fife’s Unified program and Unified Athlete, said she was thankful for being at a school that has a Unified program, and that she was happy that she was able to organize a Halloween Dance that the whole school was invited to.
“I like Unified, because it includes everyone in the school,” Steinmeyer said.
Taylor Mountsier, another Unified athlete, said that it is important for schools to be unified, and that events like prom have been more enjoyable since the introduction of the program.
Many notable people were in attendance, including ESPN representative legendary basketball coach PJ Carlesimo, formerly of Seattle Supersonics and winning 1992 Olympic Basketball Team, and Ray Roberts, former Seahawks player and assistant coach. Governor Jay Inslee spoke at the assembly, congratulating the students on their accomplishment.
“Fife students understand that everybody can have fun and everyone has a talent,” Inslee said. “I want to thank you for being as good of leaders as any adult in the state.”
Congressman Denny Heck, Washington’s 10th congressional district representative, was at the school before the banner unveiling to congratulate the students, school instructors and staff.
“I have this belief that somehow we have evolved in this society, this culture, to not stop and celebrate really good things often enough. The truth is success begets success and good feelings beget good feelings, and this is important recognition, and it is worth recognizing what has gotten us to this point,” Heck said.