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Wasilla High School honored for student inclusion programs

It’s one of 68 schools to receive banner recognition as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School this year
Published: Oct. 21, 2021 at 4:46 PM AKDT
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WASILLA, Alaska (KTUU) - After some recent recognitions, no one can argue that Wasilla High School isn’t a special school, specifically for all their efforts in student inclusion and partner programs between general and special education students.

As a Special Olympics Unified Champion School, Wasilla High is receiving a banner recognition. It is one of only 68 schools in the country to receive the honor this year.

The national recognition comes after an application process. A certifying body reviews each school based on 10 standards of excellence that the school has to meet in order to be recognized. The standards require schools to do things like have a certain amount of unified sports, leadership programs, and whole-school engagement.

What’s more, ESPN took the 68 nationally recognized schools and recognized them further. Wasilla High also got a nod as one of only 25 schools to end up on ESPN’s Honor Roll, according to Sarah Arts, vice president and COO of Special Olympics Alaska.

The teachers and students involved feel honored. But according to a couple of the teachers in the partner club classes, Coalette Watchus and Hadley Remele, it’s all about fostering positive relationships among the special and general education students.

“I just really see our kids grow in their social skills,” Remele said. “They learn how to hold conversations with their friends. They learn how to broaden their interests into a variety of subjects. They develop friendships outside of school.”

“It might just start with being able to wave to a friend that they see down the hall,” Watchus said. “But then it can develop into ‘what are you doing this weekend? Are you going to the football game?’”

The students become real friends throughout the year, like Gage Holodynski and his unified partner, Marrissah McDaniel.

On Thursday, the two were in art class. During October, they’ve had some spooky assignments. Thursday’s was to sketch animal bones, although Holodynski and McDaniel went off the beaten path and made moose family trees instead. The day before that, they drew haunted houses.

Holodynski showed no fear showing off all of his artwork to Alaska’s News Source reporters. He confidently pointed out every witch in the haunted house and every member of his moose family with his friend McDaniel by his side.

While Holodynski learns more about showing himself, proudly, to the rest of the world, McDaniel learns how to be part of his and people like him. She said her two years in the program and hanging out with Holodynski in class has changed her for the better.

“I have like, a better understanding of how people think and how everyone’s brains work,” she said.

At the sound of the bell, they say goodbye to each other with a special handshake and look forward to the next art class, the only one they have together this year.

Based on what the teachers and Special Olympics organizers said about the program in the long term, it wouldn’t be uncommon at all if McDaniel continued down a path of spending quality time with special athletes and former Special Olympians.

“We have had partners come out of the program that have gone on to be special education teachers, or occupational therapists, future employers of our athletes, unified partners throughout the rest of their adult life,” Arts said. “It’s just really an important piece of the high school experience.”

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