(From left) Jolie Press, Alex Molina, and Unified Champion School Advisor Erika Guerrero walk from one building to another at Alamo Heights High School.
(From left) Jolie Press, Alex Molina, and teacher Erika Guerrero walk between buildings at Alamo Heights High School. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

On Feb. 27, the marching band played celebratory music and cheerleaders yelled as guests streamed through the doors of Alamo Heights High School to a boisterous celebration inside.

In Texas, this scene would normally follow a homecoming victory or state championship win, but here, it represented the first time a Texas school has been awarded the Unified Champion School Banner Award.

On this February day, the Special Olympics North America Team, comprised of leaders from the organization, paid a visit to Alamo Heights High School to recognize it as a Unified Champion School. This designation means the high school works to blend the everyday activities of special education students with the rest of the school’s students. 

Education experts often identify inclusion as the goal for special education students. Alamo Heights works toward this vision inside the classroom through the Peer Tutor program, which matches a student enrolled in special education with what the district calls a “typically developing peer.” The district says there are more than 60 peer tutors enrolled in the program each year.

Special education teacher Erika Guerrero said this is just one aspect of creating a unified school. The other part happens once students leave their classes.

This is where the Unified Club comes in. The club, with a leadership team of 34 students of all abilities, organizes both structured and informal activities to create a culture of inclusiveness.

One of these structured activities is unified sports, which allows special education students the opportunity to compete, be active, and develop as players. Alamo Heights offers bowling, basketball, and soon, will offer a competitive track team that will face off with other schools’ teams in the area.

Guerrero works with Alamo Heights’ athletic director to encourage other schools to create their own teams and organize meets.

In recreational sports, the competition is more relaxed, but the students always play to win, she said.

“They are fierce,” Guerrero said. “They start competing and there is definitely some sport talk – but always, friendly competition.”

Outside of the realm of athletics, students have the chance to work alongside one another in Unified Theater, an elective course. The elective has been offered for four years, and students have performed a number of different pieces, including Rapunzel and one play written by the entire class.

“Each student got to create their own character, [had to] memorize their lines, and worked on it the whole school year,” said Patience Lopez. “We performed it four times for the school.”

This year, students performed It’s My School, Too!, which focuses on the challenges special education students face on campus. Students performed the piece for the Special Olympics group that visited Alamo Heights in February, receiving a rousing standing ovation.

Part of the play focuses on students using what they call the “r-word” – retarded – to describe other students. The club has worked to eliminate use of the offensive term at Alamo Heights.

In 2015, the Unified Club organized a school-wide Eliminate the R-Word pep rally. All students in attendance wore matching shirts and pledged to not use the word.

“Let’s quit using the r-word,” said Erica Welchel, who is enrolled in the special education program, in a video the club made for the school. “It is rude and it is hurtful for many.”

Unified Champions program participants (from left) Andrea Calderon and Erica Welchel walk through the halls of Alamo Heights High School.
Unified Champions program participants Andrea Calderon (left) and Erica Welchel walk through the halls of Alamo Heights High School. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Beyond these organized events, students enjoy hanging out with one another outside of school and supporting one another’s non-academic hobbies.

On Friday, students from the club attended a fashion show for San Antonio’s Tricentennial. Guerrero said some of the students have a passion for design and art, which led her to contact the designer for an opportunity to get involved.

At the show, pairs of students, one enrolled in special education and one a typically developing peer, walked the runway side-by-side to show off the clothing they had designed and sewn together. On stage, some twirled and flipped their hair, while other members of the Unified Club sat in the audience, taking photographs.

Members of Unified Alamo Heights James Veeder and Isabella De Paola pose for photos after the community fashion show. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The club also organizes holiday parties, trips to sporting events, and more casual hangouts.

Andrea Calderon, who has been a club member for three years, said these events illustrate the club’s growth.

“In the beginning, it would just be a few of us at basketball or football games,” she said. “At the [2018] state basketball game, we had 25 people on the bus to go together in the Unified Club. It has just grown so much.”

The ability to sustain these programs is a major aspect of being a Unified Champion School. This element, Guerrero said, is necessary because the Unified model is funded through government grants.

“If the government ever went out or the grants stopped coming, we need a way to keep [the funding] coming,” Guerrero said.

The Unified Club hosted its inaugural fundraiser in 2017 to raise money. This year, the 2nd Annual Caroline Gose 5K Run, Walk, or Roll into Inclusion will take place on April 7.

Pairs of special education students and typically developing peers either cheer on the racers or compete themselves. Prizes are awarded in male, female, and unified pairs categories. Two hundred people signed up to race last year, and the club used the money to rent out a bus for prom, so all partners could attend together.

Club member Gabi Garza said the group started off at the Pearl for photos along the River Walk, dined, and then danced all night at prom. These types of unstructured activities reinforce the inclusive nature of the school, Guerrero said.

With the money raised from this year’s 5K, the club plans to rent out another bus for prom, and hopefully extend the unified program to other campuses within the school district.

“The younger you start it, the faster you change the culture of the school,” Guerrero said. “Now it is not just in class. Now we are everywhere.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.