Students square off in a game between Marshall and Eagle Rock high schools… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)
Half a dozen arms reached for the sky, some gently grazing a basketball as it escaped the court and thudded out of bounds at the Edward Roybal Learning Center. Despite their best efforts at trying to keep the ball in the game, both teams showed no hint of defeat, even after one was declared the winner.
The Los Angeles Unified School District/Special Olympics Unified Basketball League's Eastern finals were underway, and the mood was decidedly different from that of other sports finals. Teammates, cheerleaders and spectators rooted for their players on the court — no matter the score, the turnover or the mistake.
The league is part of Project Unify, in which sports teams and cheer squads are made up of students with and without disabilities. The goal is to help students of all capabilities interact with one another outside of their regular group of friends, district officials said.
"What better way to build the integration and break down the barriers than through play?" asked Cyndi Martinich, coordinator of the district's adapted physical education program.
In 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that students with disabilities benefited just as much from participating in physical education and sports as their peers in regular classes but were involved at a much lower rate. More recently, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights clarified legal obligations for school districts to provide access to sports for students with disabilities.
For L.A. Unified, integration has long been a priority.
"We have been cutting-edge for years" in regard to physical education for students with disabilities, said Martinich, who has overseen the program and its 176 adapted physical education teachers for 13 years.
Its latest effort — a seven-year partnership with the Special Olympics of Southern California — has allowed the district to offer more extracurricular programs. These help foster an inclusive culture on campus by providing funding for specialized transportation and other accommodations that have been difficult amid budget cuts, district officials said.
When the league was introduced to schools last year, only six signed up to participate. This year, 19 teams clamored for the championship trophy.
Watching the game from chairs under a patch of shade, Robert Ortiz cheered as one of his schoolmates scored a basket. The 16-year-old junior at Belmont High School has a special education "partner" he checks in with twice a week and had come to support.
"They're not as different as we thought they were," Ortiz said, reflecting on his time with the class. His partner, Dennis, who is autistic, "asks me to come to his games and gets really excited when I show up. He's really social."
Rules and guidelines were formulated especially for the league games. Team members who aren't in special education wear yellow wristbands for identification and are not allowed to score two consecutive baskets — to further the idea of integration rather than domination.
Some teachers noted that the interaction is a way for the special education students to build physical coordination, self-esteem and confidence.
"They have something inspiring them to come to school" and it allows them to interact with other students, said Bernadine Robinson, a special education teacher at Roybal. "They're no different. They might have a deficiency, but they're human, too."
Roybal Learning Center and Contreras Learning Center advanced to the Feb. 14 city-wide championship at Roybal.