April 30, 2019 By Carol Britton Meyer
The Hingham High Unified Track and Field Team is off to a really good start for the new season.
"Our first meet against Duxbury was great despite some cooler weather," said HHS English Teacher Courtney Bruno, who coaches the team.
The April 23 meet was postponed as was the April 30 home meet -- with the new dates to be announced. Spectators are welcome and encouraged!
This year's team is made up of 70 students (63 partners without intellectual disabilities and seven athletes with intellectual disabilities). "The team has nearly tripled in size," Bruno said. "Because of that, the team has used its booster funds and donations to hire an assistant coach, Becky Liebal. She has been a wonderful and much-needed addition to the team."
The partners compete "and are there to support the athletes just like any other team works," Bruno said.
Unified Track has been an "amazing addition to the HHS athletic offerings," said Pamela Berigan, whose daughter, Avery is a member of the team. Avery, Kira Maguire, Caroline Milton, Jack Johnson, and Jack Kavanagh are the captains.
"The program, in its second season at Hingham High, brings people with and without intellectual disablities together on the same team to compete. These team members continue the friendship outside the track," Berigan said. "They are seeing each other in the halls at school and in the lunch room. It's a chance for our special needs community to feel a part of something, whether going off to practice, a pizza party, or to a meet just like their mainstream peers."
"The unified track team has quickly become one of the most beloved teams at our school. And with good reason,” Said Rick Swanson, Principal of Hingham High School. “The student-athletes who compete with the unified track team embody some of our school's highest values: inclusion, teamwork, community, and concern for others. They demonstrate the value of hard work, dedication and determination, all while having a good time and making new friends. They remind us why athletics is such an important part of education."
Respect and friendship
On the track, team members without disabilities go out of their way to encourage and teach those teammates with disabilities. "Off the track they offer them respect and friendship," Berigan said.
Athlete John Kavanagh said he loves the team because he has friends there.
Another member of the team, Cormac McDaid, said he feels "unstoppable," while fellow athlete Christian Franquiz said his favorite part is "all the events we do, like shot put, running, and javelin," which he likes the best.
The program has its beginnings in November 2017, when two HHS students, Ashtin Burbank and Ellie Holler, contacted Special Education Teacher Nicole Piantes as part of a social justice project for their Holocaust and Human Behavior course taught by Ben Louchheim and Melissa McCash. "They had noticed our students with disabilities were not represented in our sports programs, and within a month the students found a coach (Courtney Bruno), we held meetings with our administrators and partners from Special Olympics Massachusetts, applied to start a Unified Track and Field Team, and added a new MIAA (Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association) sports team to our school," Piantes said. "I am so appreciative of Jim Quatromoni’s excitement for and acceptance of this program in the first couple of months of his new job as athletic director here at HHS."
HHS is classified as a Unified Champion School, a program through the Special Olympics in which Hingham High administrators, staff, and students work to ensure inclusion is embedded throughout the school.
This is accomplished through three areas: inclusive sports, inclusive youth leadership opportunities, and whole school engagement.
"I have been coordinating a recreational Unified Bocce Team at HHS for about five years," Piantes said. "We have students with disabilities serving on our Student Council as well as in officer positions for our Best Buddies Club, which I also advise. For whole school engagement we work to spread the message of inclusion through whole school assemblies and events such as Spread the Word days. Adding the Unified Track and Field Team as a competitive spring sport fit in perfectly as a Unified Champion School!"
As a special educator Piantes offers guidance to the coaches, helps with parent communication, and works with the athletes during the school day on the various "soft skills" needed to ensure a meaningful, successful experience.
"The effects of this program stretch far beyond the athletic field. Everyone on this team is truly having the best time at practices and at the meets. The students are forming friendships that allow them social connections that they may not have had otherwise," Piantes said.
Students are saying “hi” by name to her students in the hallways and at lunch. "The partners are truly genuine and love being a part of the Unified Track and Field team," she said. "I know this experience will stay with them and allow them to keep inclusion at the forefront of their lives. Our athletes are visibly happier during track season due to the increased social connections and exercise and a routine that generally matches that of their peers (identifying as a Hingham High athlete, staying after school for sports, etc.)," Piantes said.
Team spirit runs high in other ways, too. "Not only are the athletes and partners cheering each other on throughout the meets, but the team spirit between schools is beautiful. Although this is a competitive MIAA sport, the spirit and sportsmanship between teams is unlike any other," Piantes said.
She attributes the incredible success of this program to many individuals. "This truly is a partnership. The work and passion of our students, their families, our coaches, paraeducators, athletic director, administrators, booster parents, and Special Olympics Massachusetts allow this program to be successful," Piantes said. "With ongoing support from all stakeholders, we will continue to increase the level of inclusion and tolerance in our school."
'Every school should have such a team!'
Parent Kelley Testa, has a special needs daughter Bella on the team as well as her son Jared.
"One of the most amazing things about this program is seeing the 'typical kids' cheering on the special needs kids not only on their own team but from the other teams as well," she said. "This program is what high school sports are all about -- inclusion, team spirit, unity. It's truly amazing and I am brought to tears at every meet. As the parent of a special needs child, the joy this team brings to my daughter is beyond words. The 'typical' kids who are participating in the program are also benefiting from it. Every school should have such a team.
"I have a 'typical' child [Jared] who absolutely loves being part of this team and seeing the joy it brings to his sister and the other special needs kids," Testa said.
Key members of the support staff include paraprofessionals Virginia Paine and Joyce Eby. "Nicole is also instrumental to the program, and we appreciate the support from Jim Quatromoni as well," Bruno said. "The staff support for this team will be a part of the next contract negotiations, which is wonderful in terms of the longevity of the program."
Bruno is pleased with the success of last year's team and is hoping for the same this season.
Berigan and everyone involved with the team has high praises for Bruno. "She deserves so much credit for undertaking this huge group," Berigan said. "I have been able to see her in action and it is no less than amazing. The entire community owes her a huge thank-you!"
Here's the team website and schedule: