GROTON -- Groton-Dunstable Regional High School has been recognized for its outstanding achievements of inclusion by the Special Olympics. The coveted award, national banner recognition, is given to schools that excel at "providing inclusive sports and activities for students with and without disabilities," according to a press release.

The Crusaders, including students, staff and administration as well as residents of the two communities, can trumpet the success at an as yet unscheduled ceremony. The school is one of 10 participating high schools in Massachusetts to be recognized, out of the 150 that engage in the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program, and one of 131 across the nation.

Based on a model supported by the U.

Members of the Groton-Dunstable Unified track and field team pose after a successful spring campaign. Coach Joyce Bennett, not pictured, said of the
Members of the Groton-Dunstable Unified track and field team pose after a successful spring campaign. Coach Joyce Bennett, not pictured, said of the program, We don t measure success by wins or losses. COURTESY PHOTO
S. Department of Education, the program's goal is to provide "the opportunity to form positive social relationships and promote a socially inclusive school climate," according to the published guidelines. More than 6,000 high schools across the country participate in the Unified Champion program, with a goal of 10,000 over the next two years.

The Crusaders' Unified track and field team anchored the school's accomplishment.The school exceeded all 10 guiding principles, including: the staging of a schoolwide, inclusive event at least twice per year; the offering of unified sports over at least two seasons; the inclusive group is "officially recognized by the school in a similar style as other clubs/activities.


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Ann Valacer and Joyce Bennett are coaches for the track and field team. They also coach the Unified basketball squads, both boys and girls. It was them who spearheaded the movement to get Groton-Dunstable Regional High School to participate in the nationwide program. Five years ago, Valacer started the program with the track teams before adding in the basketball season in 2016.

GDRHS scored high, exceeding the national average on three important metrics used to measure the success of the program.

Participants in the Groton-Dunstable Regional High School Unified sports program take a break to celebrate their national acclaim. From left, Hannah Dean,
Participants in the Groton-Dunstable Regional High School Unified sports program take a break to celebrate their national acclaim. From left, Hannah Dean, Douglas Schwefler, coaches Ann Valacer and Joyce Bennett, Evan Cook, William Manzi. NASHOBA VALLEY VOICE/SCOTT SHURTLEFF
These metrics are aggregations based on nationwide feedback from participants. With regard to "participation in the program as a turning point in their lives," 84 percent of students nationwide said yes and 88 percent credit the program with reducing bullying. And on the question of "has participation increased the confidence of students with disabilities?" the average standard is 72 percent among participants.

Senior Hannah Dean, who competes in track and field and basketball, agrees. "It makes it fun to stay active," she said, and plans to continue her competitive ways after graduation with aspirations to run 5K road races.

William Manzi, also a senior, said, "It's a great way to bring us all together. We have a lot of fun." Manzi has his sights set on college after graduation, with an eye toward a career in finance.

Douglas Schwefler competes in several track disciplines, and is swing man on the basketball team. "Even if we lose we have a good time."

Evan Cook serves as both star point guard for the school and unofficial assistant player/coach for the Unified basketball team. "The community has been very supportive," he said. "You can hear them cheering for us -- and for the opponents too."

Both unified teams have full rosters; 30 track and field athletes and 16 hoopsters combined for the boys' and girls' squads.

And, said Valacer, "We are very proud of our Unified student-athletes."