Unified Sports programs at local high schools have taken off in recent years – most notably in Mesa, spearheaded by Westwood High School Athletic Director Brady Pond.
Pond helped build the program at Westwood, which eventually got the district involved, including former Desert Vista Athletic Director and current Mesa Public Schools Athletic Director Tommy Eubanks. Together, they added Unified programs at other Mesa schools which gave more opportunities to students in special education programs to showcase their athletic ability.
Showcase events took place at local Mesa schools. Student athletes had the opportunity to compete in track, basketball and some in flag football. It’s also grown in other East Valley communities such as Chandler and Gilbert.
Now, the Tempe Union High School District is mulling its options to start a Unified program at its six high schools.
At the May 4 Governing Board meeting, Tempe Union Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil said, “We look to find ways in which we can benefit students by having a Unified Sports program or the Special Olympics.”
Mendivil’s comment gave local athletic directors hope. Together with district Athletic Director Dave Huffine, they’ve started preliminary talks about what a Unified program would look like.
Huffine said in a text message the program is still in development but that there has been support behind it, especially from the Special Olympics.
“It will be something that we will spend some time on this summer but there has been a lot of enthusiasm and support behind it,” Huffine said. “We have some upcoming meetings with Jeff Wooten of Special Olympics and I should know more once those take place as (Special Olympics) is a big support of Unified programs in schools.
“All six high schools are looking at developing a unified program to give great activities and engaged opportunities to more of our student population.”
Aaron Frana, the athletic director at Mountain Pointe, has had conversations with Principal Tomika Banks and other school administrators about what a Unified Sports program would look like at his school.
He takes pride in being proactive with his sports programs, adding opportunities for his student population. Last year, he added a girls’ flag football team – another emerging sport. Now, he aims to establish a Unified Sports program that he hopes to kick off in the fall.
It won’t reach the level of other districts yet. He said it will likely start in one of the school’s existing P.E. classes that cater to special education students. But he hopes it will grow from there.
“I get goosebumps just thinking about it,” Frana said. “I love being proactive and being ahead of the game a little bit. Every kid deserves the opportunity to compete in something and we want to give those opportunities to them.”
Tempe Union athletic directors, including Frana, Desert Vista’s David Klecka and Brian Fleming from Corona del Sol, met weeks ago to discuss what a program would look like at each school.
“I’m a former special education teacher and I think any time you can include all students in any activity, I think the whole school benefits from that,” Klecka said. “It brings excitement. I think Unified Sports is something we are missing. Desert Vista is behind it 100 percent.”
These conversations have stemmed from an April board meeting. Jody Hernandez, the mother of a McClintock incoming junior special needs student, brought up the idea during the meeting’s time for public comment.
She expressed her son’s interest in playing sports after he spent time as the scorekeeper for the junior varsity basketball team and was able to play in one of the team’s games. While an inspirational moment, she said her son, George, has inquired about playing in another game.
But with no Special Olympics or Unified program, she is unable to give her son an answer.
“I’ve advocated for this since December, other families since 2016,” Hernandez said at the April 6 meeting. “When I asked for progress from Special Olympics, they say ask the district. When I ask athletics, they say it’s doable but special ed is in charge. Special Ed has shared no new updates since the last meeting in February. So, what is the holdup?”
Hernandez went on to suggest starting the program small, much like Westwood did when Pond took over in 2020.
Pond told AFN in February the growth at Westwood was slow. In his first year as athletic director, he hosted the Unified state badminton qualifiers despite his school not yet having a team. To drive interest, he invited all special needs classrooms to watch.
In his second year, he established a physical education class for Unified athletes. It allowed them to practice during school hours so transportation didn’t become an issue. It was at that time Westwood also created a badminton, basketball and track team.
As interest grew, so did Westwood’s need for coaches. It was the same growing pain Red Mountain went through seven years ago when its first Unified P.E. class was established.
It took Red Mountain years to get to the level it is now, competing for Unified championships through Special Olympics and the Arizona Interscholastic Association. It will likely take some time for Tempe Union as well. But athletic directors are motivated to get it done and put coaches in place.
“We have a teacher who wants to do it,” Frana said. “Her name is Christine Dagel, she is our girls’ soccer coach who will be on campus next year and she has a background in Unified Sports and Special Olympics. We are going to get those pieces in place and move forward to try to make it happen.”