Special Olympics recognizes local schools for inclusion initiatives

Salem High School earned National Banner status as a part of Special Olympics’ Unified Champion Schools program

SALEM, Va. – The 2023 New River Polar Plunge is less than one month away, as plungers prepare to be freezin’ for a reason to support the athletes and programs of Special Olympics Virginia.

Schools in Southwest Virginia are also involved in spreading Special Olympics’ message of inclusion and some, including Salem High School, are getting national recognition for their efforts.

“We want all students to feel safe and welcome and encouraged and just have a sense of belonging here no matter if they have a disability or not,” said Megan Johnson, a special education teacher at Salem.

Johnson and her colleagues Candice Zimmerman and Rebekah Grooten were among the teachers and students recognized last year for helping Salem High School achieve the status of a National Banner School as a part of the Special Olympics’ Unified Champion Schools program. The recognition was a first for Salem.

“To reach this honor you kind of have to meet ten national standards of excellence in areas of advocacy, inclusion, and respect, so it’s a good feeling,” said Candice Zimmerman, a special education teacher who has played an integral role in Salem’s initiatives for students of all abilities.

Salem was one of only nine schools across Virginia to earn the honor. Roanoke County’s Northside High School, ECPI University Roanoke, and Virginia Tech also achieved National Banner Status in 2022.

Unified Champion Schools plan and participate in programs that bring together students with and without disabilities, including at the Special Olympics Big Feet Meet, an annual track and field event in the Roanoke Valley, and Salem’s own Unified Track program.

“Something that really is not talked about a lot is students with disabilities don’t access afterschool stuff like typical high school kids do,” said Rebekah Grooten, a special education teacher who leads Salem’s Unified Track program. “Letting them access Unified Track is just like a completely new experience for a lot of our kids, and that’s been great.”

Everyone involved said this is about more than just sports and fitness.

“I just hope that they feel a sense of pride and success in knowing that they’ve done something that not everybody gets to do and they get to be a part of something so inclusive,” Johnson said.

Johnson, Grooten, and Zimmerman agree – Salem’s success would not be possible without the support of the entire student body, fellow teachers and staff, and the Salem community as a whole.

“It takes a team to make all of these things happen and you have to work really hard to get it off the ground,” Zimmerman said. “I’m proud of that, I’m proud of them, I’m proud to be a part of it.”

The New River Polar Plunge helps support the school and community programs of Special Olympics Virginia.

Click here to sign up to participate in the event on Saturday, Feb. 25, or donate.

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