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It wasn’t until high school that Mike Sartori, 18, found his favorite sport.

Now, Sartori, a senior at Henry E. Lackey High School who has special needs, talks about his bocce team with pride. He said he loves being a part of a team that focuses less on eligibility and more on equal opportunity.

Schools across Maryland have stepped up their games for providing opportunities for students with disabilities in sports and physical activities.

A Maryland law passed in 2008, the Fitness and Athletic Equity Act, requires school systems to provide students with equivalent opportunities in sports, physical education and intramural activities.

Students like Sartori have had the opportunity in Southern Maryland to participate in physical education via adapted PE classes, but the law, school staff said, seems to have caused school systems to take another look at their programming, improving what already was being done. As a result of the law, unified sports were born.

Rocco Aiello, coordinator of adapted PE for St. Mary’s County public schools, said, “if a child in a wheelchair goes out for basketball and doesn’t make it, we have to provide another option.”

The option was corollary sports in St. Mary’s, known in Charles and Calvert as unified sports.

Developed by Special Olympics, the unified sports programs combine students with and without disabilities on the same team. They compete against similar teams from the county and state. The three counties provide this opportunity for students, but the sports vary by school system.

St. Mary’s offers bocce — a kind of lawn bowling — indoor bowling and cycling. Calvert offers bocce, tennis, and strength and conditioning, while Charles offers tennis, bocce, basketball and track.

The sports not only offer an option for those with disabilities but provide them with a chance to engage with other students outside of their school environment.

“Other athletes are coming out to be with these kids,” said Kevin Hook, supervisor of transportation and athletics for Calvert County public schools.

Hook said many students without disabilities who participate in unified sports are members of other sports teams for the school and participating in their offseason.

Hook said that not only is the unified sports program providing the opportunity for students who wouldn’t normally have a chance to participate in an organized sport, it is allowing them to compete against and with other athletes.

For example, Calvert participated in unified bocce last winter, and of the 12 students without special needs on Patuxent High School’s team in Lusby, nine were members of the school’s football team, Hook said. Students with and without disabilities were interacting on a competitive level. While respect for those with special needs always has been there among students, he said, now, with unified sports, students are “starting to see the competitiveness.”

Unified sports coordinator Michelle Sullivan and Seth Rak, an adaptive PE teacher, told Charles County school board members at a recent meeting that benefits to students with disabilities include developing friendships, strengthening skills, understanding sports and improving social and communication skills. Students with disabilities also learn vocational skills and new methods to improve life.

Students without disabilities benefit from the program in many of the same ways. Life skills improvements include patience, teamwork and valuing the unique strength of every individual.

Representing with pride

Hook said students with special needs who might not have otherwise been able to participate are able to now say, “I’m playing for my school.”

Trevor Fitzgerald, 18, is able to represent Leonardtown High School on the corollary bowling team. He said during a recent match that he has been bowling for about eight years, but this is his second year bowling for his high school.

What he likes about corollary bowling is meeting different people and “learning who they are.” Fitzgerald said, “They call me the secret weapon, because that’s how good I am.”

Sarah Shaw, 17, joined the Leonardtown bowling team this year through the advice of a teacher. “It’s a lot of fun, and you learn a lot” about the students with special needs, she said. One thing she noticed is that while the teams are competing, everyone is encouraging, cheering one another on even when someone messes up.

Rebecca Ellwell, 20, said the thing she notices from being on a team is that students without special needs “have a lot of gutter balls.”

Adapting to the needs

Adapted PE is not a new concept in education, and while teachers may have practiced adapting for students before, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 (reauthorized in 2004) identifies physical education as a curriculum area that is available to all children with disabilities, according to information provided by the Maryland State Department of Education.

According to the state, physical education is so far the only curriculum area identified by federal law. Adapted PE programs meet the needs of students through modifications and accommodations.

Dylan Barber, 12, is in general classes at Northern Middle School. He does everything all the other students can do, though his dwarfism makes some things more challenging.

In PE classes, Dylan participates just like everyone else, though the equipment and rules may be modified to fit his needs.

During a recent PE class, Dylan and his friend, Ben Lash, 12, who uses a wheelchair, were bowling with the rest of the class.

The two boys used modified balls and were allowed to be closer to the pins during their turns.

Dustin Jackson, the adapted PE resource teacher for Calvert schools, said his goal is to make sure all students are included with mainstream students when possible.

Jackson travels to schools to provide assistance for PE teachers and work directly with students with special needs.

Jackson works with students who are not ready to join the mainstream PE class on their motor skills and cardiovascular fitness, preparing them for a general education PE class.

Britta Sparks, supervisor of instruction for Calvert schools, said all PE teachers certified in Maryland are certified to teach adapted PE.

In St. Mary’s County, Aiello said, some classes involve reverse inclusion, where able-bodied students are paired as peer tutors with students with special needs. For example, with bowling, peer tutors teach the students strategies for the game.

The class will go on life enrichment field trips, such as to a local bowling alley, where the class can work together outside of the educational environment.

Aiello said the law requires educators to be responsible for a transition from school to community for students with special needs. “It’s important children understand they have those options outside of school,” he said.

Several students with special needs from Lackey were recently at the Capital Clubhouse in Waldorf on an ice-skating trip. With donated equipment from the Greater Waldorf Jaycees, students who would not otherwise have an opportunity to skate were able to do so with the help of specialized walkers and sleds.

Evan Vahratian, transition academic adaptive skills teacher at Lackey, said providing students with special needs the opportunities for physical education helps in many ways, including decreasing the students’ level of anxiety.

Sartori agreed with Vahratian that physical activity helps children alleviate anxiety.

Vahratian said a new class piloted at Lackey, similar to classes in St. Mary’s County, will pair students with and without disabilities in the same PE class. The class, PE Leadership and Disability Awareness, will be a regular PE class, with the exception that a portion of the class will involve students without special needs learning about special education.

Vahratian said that, this year, the class is a work-in-progress but is already helping students with and without disabilities.

He said that in years past, students with special needs who were unable to participate in mainstream PE would get 30 minutes of adapted PE a week.

“Now we get a whole class devoted to it,” Sartori said.

Sartori said he is doing circuit training and sports like bocce in his adapted class.

Vahratian is seeing to it that more students who are in self-contained classrooms get exposed to larger group settings. Exposing students to more physical activities and students without disabilities, Vahratian said, is helping students make “more positive relationships with their peers.”

The Charles school system is looking to start similar classes at other schools in coming years, such as at North Point High School in Waldorf next year.

A community effort

Aiello said the community plays a big role in helping students with disabilities expand opportunities in sports and physical activity.

All three counties receive support from Special Olympics and local agencies.

For corollary cycling in St. Mary’s, students have access to the Three Notch Trail and the Indian Head Rail Trail. Aiello said community members often come out to support the cyclers and ride with them.

Aiello said many students with physical disabilities need options besides Special Olympics. For those athletes, Aiello said, there is a Paralympics Sport Southern Maryland, a community-based program developed to involve youth and adults with physical and visual disabilities.

Aiello said the club currently focuses on adapted aquatics. Aiello said there is already a great Special Olympics program, “now we’re going to have a great Paralympic program.”

The program is part of the U.S. Paralympics and is operated through the St. Mary’s County Department of Recreation and Parks.

gphillips@somdnews.com