By Juhi Varma
Seventh period, Monday through Friday, at the Malden High School gymnasium is reserved for something very special—the Unified Sports Program. It’s when MHS students spend 45 minutes “coaching” members of the school’s PACE program.
“It’s fantastic, very amazing,” said MHS Coach Steve MacDonald. “It’s where the star players from all varsity teams help the PACE program kids play sports.”
PACE, which stands for Practical Academics and Community Experience, is a program for children with special needs. At present there are approximately fifty students between the ages of 13 and 22 enrolled in the program.
The idea for having a “unified sports” class was introduced four years ago by Barbara Scibelli, administrative assistant at the Department of Athletics and PE for Malden Public Schools.
“I am extremely proud of this program and all the awesome students involved!” said Scibelli. She continued: “The Unified Sports Program at Malden High School has helped create awareness and acceptance in our high school community. The mainstream student-athletes have helped many of us in the school overcome prejudices about athletes with intellectual or physical disabilities. Because of this program our Malden High School Special Olympic student-athletes, many with severe cognitive and physical disabilities, now have a safe and nurturing environment in which they can play and compete. Our mainstream student-athletes have learned a lot about themselves and how they can make change.”
There are currently 18 student athletes appointed as “Unified Sports Leaders” to oversee the activities. PACE teachers and paraprofessionals are always present. “Its lots of fun helping out,” said senior Cruz Desrochers, captain of the football team.
Scibelli went on to explain how the program had brought together two groups of Malden High students: student-athletes competing at the Division I interscholastic level and student-athletes with severe disabilities. “From basketball to soccer to yoga, they’ve worked to improve physical fitness, sharpen skills, and challenge the competition; more importantly they have promoted social inclusion through sports,” she noted.
The PACE students also have regular gym classes, “Adaptive PE,” with a physical education teacher. The students also compete in the school’s annual Special Olympics every Spring.
“I frequently visit the class,” said MHS Principal Dana Brown. “It is remarkable to see the seamless way in which our able-bodied and disabled students interact. It truly is an inclusive experience with the lines very blurred regarding who is leading and who is participating. It could be a model program for others.”