ESPN and Special Olympics name the Top 5 Unified Champion Schools for 2020

Postlethwait Middle School in Delaware has accomplished what it set out to achieve: creating an inclusive environment for students of all abilities.

In 2018, it started the process of becoming a Special Olympics Unified Champion School, which integrates students with and without disabilities, and this year the middle school became a National Banner School, meeting 10 national standards of excellence set by Special Olympics and the education community. Postlethwait is one of only eight schools with that distinction throughout Delaware. Now, ESPN and Special Olympics recognize Postlethwait and four other top schools as part of the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools National Recognition Program. The top 36 were announced last week.

"Being recognized as a [Unified Champion School] is a true testament to the school and community that Postlethwait Middle School is committed to ensuring that all students have an opportunity to participate in a program where everyone is welcome and [everyone] belongs," Postlethwait principal Kristina Failing said.

These are the Top 5 ESPN Unified Champion Schools in alphabetical order, with quotes from those involved in the program.

Delaware: Postlethwait Middle School

"[Unified Champion Schools] invite students to be a part of a group that they may not interact with on a regular basis," said Failing, principal of Postlethwait Middle School. "Introducing students from varying backgrounds and abilities to one another is an exciting opportunity to meet new people. Connecting with one another in an organization such as this is something that all students should experience. These friendships are built without bias and it is amazing to see how the students care for each other."

Iowa: Theodore Roosevelt High School

"Our inclusive sports teams were not only successful on the court and field but around the school and community when you saw new friendships and a more positive environment around the school," said Elizabeth Saunders, a student without disabilities who participates in the program. "Our whole school engagement is unmatched. The energy at our Rider Pride and Unified basketball games is always inspiring to see and shares the message of inclusion throughout the community."

Minnesota: University of Minnesota Twin Cities

"Raising awareness about Special Olympics in college is important as students eventually become future leaders in businesses, governments and communities around the country and have the power to promote inclusion on an even larger scale," said JP Costello, a student at Minnesota. "Participating in a community which is actively working towards eliminating barriers and promoting inclusion for all people demonstrates to individuals living with an impairment that they are supported and valued."

New Mexico: Mayfield High School

"I think the most important lesson our students learn is compassion and to look beyond a disability," a spokesperson from Mayfield said. "It's amazing to see the transformation from the beginning of an event to the end. When we start a project or start practicing, I see hesitation and shy students. They're not sure how to interact with each other. By the time the project ends or the main sporting event rolls around, there's not a distinction between students with disabilities and students without disabilities. They've become a team and have built friendships. Most importantly, everyone in the classroom or garden or basketball court or kickball field are all having the time of their lives. Seeing so many smiles is what UCS is about: everyone working together to build unity and having fun."

Vermont: Champlain Valley Union

"It's not just a slogan for us, I honestly believe that," coach Anthony Spagnolo said. "We live by these values every day. Each decision is made through an equity lens, and our school leadership puts our often-marginalized students on the top of the priority list. Inclusion is not an inconvenience or an 'extra' thing here; it's expected and a part of the authentic culture. Being a Unified Champion School means we, as a community at large, are doing the right things to create a safe, welcoming place for everyone. Truly a banner worth celebrating."

Editor's note: Since 2013, ESPN has been the Global Presenting Sponsor of Special Olympics Unified Sports® and supports unified activation around the world.  Special Olympics has collaborated with ESPN to expand Unified Sports by inspiring action and fostering an inclusive culture that empowers individuals with and without intellectual disabilities to engage through the power of sports. ESPN support has helped Special Olympics surpass its 2020 goal of adding 10,000 unified schools globally.