South Salem High School was nationally recognized recently for its work in building an inclusive environment for students with disabilities. 

South Salem High School is now included in the roughly 10% of Oregon schools designated as Special Olympics National Unified Champion Schools. These schools work to build a welcoming environment by creating sports teams made up of  students with disabilities and without disabilities playing together.

South Salem High School has unified P.E. along with volleyball, basketball, kickball, softball and bocce ball. The school has been doing unified activities for three years and will have 50 kids in the program in the 2021-22 school year. 

Gabby Baker, Jackson Campbell and Brennan Young are part of South Salem High School's Special Olympics Unified Sports program.

Gabby Baker, Jackson Campbell and Brennan Young are part of South Salem High School’s Special Olympics Unified Sports program.

Lauren Kristensen/OPB

South Salem High School special education teacher Brennan Young is also the coordinator of the unified programs. He told “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller that, typically, when someone has a disability, that tends to be the first thing that’s recognized about them. 

“I think this concept just flips that on its head and just really celebrates our students and people with disabilities for what they can do,” he said. 

Young explained that he first heard about this program 11 years ago when he served as  a unified soccer coach in Seattle. He described that experience as “life changing.”

Jackson Campbell, a junior at South Salem High School , is part of the program. He has a cognitive disability. Campbell said that the first time he attempted to run a race, it didn’t go so well.

“I decided to drop out before I even made it a mile,” he said. “I was scared and I regret that now.” 

The first time Campbell was able to complete the entire course, another student helped him by running right next to him the entire time. Now Campbell is a member of the school’s cross country team. 

“I just felt overwhelmed with joy,” he said, remembering that first race he completed.

Nationwide, 88% of teachers in the Unified Schools program say that the inclusiveness it fosters has decreased the amount of bullying and teasing in their schools. All participating schools must complete the 10 national standards of excellence. These standards focus on three main topics: Special Olympics Unified Sports, Inclusive Youth Leadership and Whole-School Engagement. South Salem High School brings these standards through sports, drama, art, robotics and a leadership class.

The national recognition also means the school has to show that this inclusive program will continue to thrive in the future by having a plan to continue the sports the next couple years. The South Salem High School funds this program through close work with Special Olympics of Oregon and the Polar Plunge event.

Jackson Campbell is a junior at South Salem High School.

Jackson Campbell is a junior at South Salem High School.

Lauren Kristensen/OPB

Campbell said entering high school was scary because he thought his peers wouldn’t accept him. 

“But thanks to Mr. Young and a few other people, including my mother and Gabby, I am where I am now so I thank them,” he said.”

Gabby Baker, a senior, said she had no interest in teaching or special education before she started helping Young with his classes when she was a sophomore, but now she’s hooked. She says she finds the unified program to be very welcoming to everyone, students with and without disabilities. 

“It’s really just groups of friends hanging out and learning about each other,” she said. I got to meet Jackson and we became best friends and it’s just been awesome.”  

Now Baker helps Young lead some of his classes and spends her free time hanging out with students in the program. She mentioned that students with disabilities are teaching her sports she’s never tried before and she wants to major in special education.

To hear more from Think Out Loud’s conversation with Jackson Campbell, Gabby Baker, and Brennan Young, click the “play” arrow at the top of the page.