For years, Macon County High School’s Lifeskills teacher Derek McCaleb watched his students cheer on the football team or the basketball team as they headed out to games. “We’d see them at pep rallies, and it seemed like the special education kids were more into it than many of the other students,” McCaleb says. “They were more excited about it, even if they weren’t usually able to participate in those sports.
But since the special education students started participating in the Upper Cumberland Region Special Olympics events last year, they’re the ones being celebrated, McCaleb says. “The entire school lines the hallways before we go to an event,” he says. “The cheerleaders, the other sports teams — they cheer us on, and the band leads us out.”
The events generally occur once a month, when the 32 participants from the high school travel by bus to Tennessee Tech University or other area campuses and compete against teams and individuals from several other counties in the region. Sports include basketball, flag football, and baseball and just about everything in between.
The Macon County teams join the ranks of the already thriving Special Olympics programs from Sumner County and Allen County school systems. Melissa Turner, Special Olympics coach in Allen County, says their year-round team started more than 30 years ago. It includes a swim team and more than 80 volunteers, and takes about 25 students to state championships each year. Barbara Schmittou, Comprehensive Development Classroom teacher at Westmoreland High School, says their program started seven years ago and includes other Sumner County schools. “The other students high-five our guys before events,” she says. “They are the athletes that day.”
Macon County High’s life skills class started competing in the events in April 2018, a few months after McCaleb and two oth- ers — Kimberly Hale, a behavioral analyst who works with the school system, and coach Tyler York, the school’s adaptive physi- cal education teacher — realized they wanted to offer their stu- dents another outlet for their school spirit. “We just put our heads together and thought, ‘Why aren’t we doing Special Olympics?’”
So, in February 2018 they approached the Macon County Board of Education, the superintendent and the special education supervisor for permission. “There was no doubt about it,” McCa- leb says. “They were in unanimous agreement.”
Since then, the students have participated in the games nearly every month. In the fall of the 2018-2019 school year, the school system started incorporating Macon County Junior High School students. Elementary schools are also being added into the mix each year, McCaleb says.
McCaleb didn’t expect how his students would embrace the competition aspect of the events. “Our first competition was track and field last April,” he says. “We had events like the 50-meter dash walk, a 100-yard run, a 200-yard run and a 400-yard run. There was a standing long jump, a running long jump and a softball throw. We were a little worried about how it would go because it was our first event ever. But once the kids got there, I realized, ‘Whoa. We’ve got some really competitive kids.’ They got right in there, and they took off and just really made us proud.”
In fact, the Macon High School team won eight first-place ribbons, six second-place ribbons, four third-place ribbons and two fourth-place ribbons. In more recent events, the Macon County Middle School team won first place in its first flag football tournament, and the high school team brought home a second-place ribbon.
Their spirits are rising, too, McCaleb says. “You would not believe the change in them,” he says. “Now, we’re seeing more confidence. They’re allowed to try out for regular sports teams, and we’re seeing more of them do it than we ever have before.”
But what he finds even more interesting is how his students are interacting more with other students in the school. “It’s always been my goal since I’ve been working with special education students to get them out into the real world,” he says. “Special Olympics has been a big part of that. But it also gets the rest of the school noticing them in a way they never did before.”
Now, other athletes compliment the Special Olympians on a win, or they ask them how they did in a competition. They wish them luck before an event. Cheerleaders and other sports teams make banners for them. The office staff even asks McCaleb for updates during the events so they can announce them over the loudspeakers for the other students.
“There’s always going to be a difference between general education and special education,” McCaleb says. “But we’re see- ing the other students give our students high-fives. They’re really interacting a lot more now that we’re doing this. It’s just been a really big deal for everybody. Everybody is taking notice of them now.”