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North High among elite in Unified sports
October 2, 2019

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Competition is the name of the game for North Fort Myers High's Uniformed teams.

The young athletes on the courts last week were all working on their game and taking it fairly seriously - and for good reason. The school, in just its second year of offering the program for boys and girls, including those with special needs, is trying to once again be named as a National Banner Unified Champion School through Special Olympics.

The designation is earned: North and Cypress Lake High School are the only two schools in Lee County to earn the designation. Only 24 schools in Florida and 173 nationwide are named a champion school.

This year, North will be expanding its horizons by adding bowling in the fall and basketball in the winter. Special Olympians in unified sports are considered athletes, while their "general population" teammate is called a partner.

"We now have a class dedicated to it so we get practice time in for basketball and then we'll do track in the spring," said physical education teacher Brooke Pasquale. "It's an opportunity to get our general education kids involved with the access kids and bring that inclusion to North Fort Myers."

Beth Beller, who helps run the program with Pasquale, said the basketball team will go to Orlando for a state tournament next month while she takes the bowling team for a tournament in November.

If there has been a problem so far, it's been participation. There are 12 players on the basketball team, seven of them access athletes; and just five for bowling, three of them access athletes.

However, students like Kurt Sherman love the program and how it has brought the students together.

"If you participate in it, it's a great bonding experience for the community," said Sherman, a partner. "I try to do the best I can with everyone. I hope when I graduate that people continue to do it."

John Hassell, an athlete, said he likes the program a lot.

"We learn a lot. We learn about new people and make new friends," said Hassell, who participates in all three sports. "It's a lot of fun. I do really well and have fun with my partners. We learn from each other."

Brandon Lovette, another athlete, showed himself to be a formidable basketball player.

"I like the Special Olympics and I'm glad to be here for basketball and bowling. I used to play for a basketball team in Georgia," Lovette said. "I like to help the other special kids here and have fun."

A Special Olympics Unified Champion School demonstrating commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 standards of excellence receives national banner recognition. They have an inclusive school climate and exudes a sense of collaboration, engagement and respect for all members of the student body and staff, the Special Olympics website states.

"We want them to have fun while learning leadership skills, qualities, cooperation, loyalty and all those other characteristics that we want them to have," Beller said.

"Bringing those groups together where they are all the same and developing their social skills with people they wouldn't get ordinarily," Pasquale said. "You want to win, but it's about building the community in the school."

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