By Steve Sears
Mount Olive High School has enjoyed an almost 25-year relationship with Special Olympics, having hosted events on site, then forming Special Olympics bowling and track and field teams about 15 years ago.
Now the organization has recognized the school in a special way, naming the institution as a National Unified Champion School. Just one of five schools in New Jersey to be so named, it recognizes the school’s commitment to including a sports program in which students both with and without disabilities train and compete with other schools as teammates. Mount Olive High School met ten standards to qualify for the award.
Superintendent Robert Zywicki, Ed.D. says of the award, “We use the hashtag ALLkid. It’s that philosophy that’s existed here, and one that everyone has doubled down on recently. Unified Sports are the exemplar of our effort of inclusion. I think it’s a combination of things: being inclusive in the classroom and being inclusive on the playing field. I could not be more proud of the athletes and the coaches, and I really need to give credit to Sharon Staszak, who really was the driver of so much of this.”
“We were a championship school last year, but it wasn’t nationally recognized,” says Staszak, the school’s Director of Special Services.
The school’s involvement in Unified Sports began roughly four years ago, and soccer, track & field, and basketball are included under this umbrella, and last year there was a foray into Unified bowling for the first time.
Pamela Molfetto, a Special Education teacher and coach, says that involvement in the Unified Sports program gives everybody the opportunity to be involved in the school. “Unified kind of changes the culture of the school,” she says. “It brings a community feeling to all of our kids.”
“It also levels the playing field for the kids because it kind of makes that sport or that activity that at one point was unreachable that it’s now anyone can achieve it ,” says Nancy Gilbert, who also teaches Special Education and coaches.
Prior to COVID19, Mount Olive High School competed against six opponents. This year is a bit different. Instead of contact sports, individual skills will be focused on instead. This can be done in person with Gilbert or Molfetto, or virtually from home. Most likely after the skills are ingrained, Mount Olive may face West Morris Mendham High School in person for interaction.
Gilbert would in the future like to see other sports added. “Well, there are four seasons, so there’s still volleyball that we could do, and I’ve wanted Bocce forever. I’d love to see a Bocce field built somewhere near here. And there is also Unified Bowling.” She also mentions that students have the option to do both Special Olympics and Unified sports. “We have athletes who do Unified track and field and they compete against teams all over Morris County, but they also have a Special Olympics competition that they can go through States and Nationals.”
Staszak mentions that she’d like to see middle and elementary school involvement. “For activities throughout the year; that’s one of our goals this year as well: expanding district-wide.”
“It’s inclusive, it’s competitive, everybody has the opportunity to do their best, whatever level that may be at,” says Gilbert. “And also, to be recognized for their personal achievements, as well as the team camaraderie.”
Staszak adds to Gilbert’s important last statement. “All efforts and achievement are applauded.”