By Nance Ebert, Contributing Writer
Northborough – Algonquin Regional High School (ARHS) officials have recently been informed that the school has received the prestigious honor of being recognized as a “National Banner” school by Special Olympics Massachusetts (SOMA).
Schools who receive this honor must demonstrate a commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 standards of excellence set by SOMA. ARHS is one of ten Massachusetts schools to receive this recognition.
The school has two “unified” sports teams – track and field in the spring and basketball in the fall that are composed of students with and without disabilities and, as teammates, they train and compete together.
“We are so excited to be recognized in this way but, truly, this program started several years ago by [former] Principal Thomas Mead and [former] Athletic Director Fran Whitten,” said current principal Dr. Sara J. Pragluski Walsh. “They were so supportive and instrumental in getting our Best Buddies program in place with Kevin Hausmann, an ARHS science teacher and Best Buddies faculty advisor, as well as a Unified Track and Field coach.”
She also noted the support of Michael Mocerino, the school’s current athletic director for the past decade, who himself has a background in special education.
“This was initially funded by a grant from Special Olympics Massachusetts. Here at Algonquin, we are considered to be a Unified Champion School. What makes it ‘Unified’ is that it is typically a 50/50 ratio with students with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Hausmann.
There are approximately 60 students that participate on the Unified Track Team and 25 students on the Unified Basketball Team. The culture of Best Buddies and Unified Sports have had a profound positive effect on the school’s environment.
“We empower our student leaders to be the biggest agents of change,” Hausmann noted. “When you see the students engaging with their peers successfully, it becomes comfortable. [The students] love to compete, love to win and they accept when they lose.”
“What sets Algonquin apart is the phenomenal support we get from the nine other schools within our three districts,” added Walsh. “We host the Algonquin games, which is a huge production and collaboration put on by our Central Office student support staff. We took Algonquin and interwove it into the community and asked the community to interweave back with us. This network that Kevin has created, which Central Office supports, is the fundamental aspect of being a championship school. Kevin challenges, supports and empowers the students. This is the outcome and it is just incredible to see. I am appreciative of this opportunity every day.”
The students feel that way as well.
“I got involved with Unified Track freshman year because I was looking for something to do with my free time in the spring,” said student Halle Zides. “I believe, to this day, that it was one of the best decisions I have made in my high school career so far. Unified Track has shaped me into who I am today and I am forever grateful for that.”
Kaleigh Barker, another Algonquin student, added: “I am honored that our school got this recognition from Special Olympics. Unified Sports are so fun and inclusive for anyone who wants to be a part of a team. I think it’s cool to be on a team that found out it’s one of the best in the country.”
An award ceremony will be held for the entire school at a later date this fall.