ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithaca High School has been named a National Banner Unified Champion School for its “leadership creating an inclusive school community where all students are accepted, celebrated and included.” IHS is one of nine New York high schools that received the recognition, considered the highest honor for Unified Champion Schools in the country.

Unified Champion Schools work with the Special Olympics to create opportunities for equality for students with disabilities in sports, the classroom and elsewhere. Students with and without intellectual disabilities play on the same sports teams, highlighted by basketball and bowling, with the goal of fostering leadership and connection among those students that they’ll hopefully extend to others in their class. The announcement was made Wednesday by Special Olympics New York President & CEO Stacey Hengsterman.

“Unified Sports has enriched our community and provided platforms for all students to achieve their dreams,” said Samantha Little, Director of Athletics and Wellness. “Unified Sports has created a more inclusive culture and afforded us to put our values at the forefront of what we believe in as a district. We learn and grow together when we contribute to engaging, educating, and empowering everyone.”

Stephanie Valletta, the Unified Sports coach and youth advisor, said the champion school program has helped the district generate a potentially lasting culture change.

“We know that the quest for increased inclusion goes beyond the bowling alley or the basketball court and we hope that by earning this national recognition, more and more of our young people will continue to #choosetoinclude in our schools and in our community,” Valletta said.

Matt Butler is the Editor in Chief of The Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at