Special Olympics Illinois and Rockford Publics Schools announced a historic partnership with the Special Olympics North America Unified Champion City Schools (UCCS) initiative last Thursday. UCCS is a focused approach to amplify the essential elements of Unified Champion Schools (UCS) within city school districts. UCS utilizes three interconnected components for social inclusion in schools:

  • The Special Olympics Unified Sports® which joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team.
  • Inclusive Youth Leadership programs where young people of all abilities are given opportunities to be leaders in their schools and communities.
  • Whole school engagement with the goal of creating a school climate that fosters understanding and respect for all and will influence how students think and act within and beyond the classroom.

There are nearly 8,000 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® in the United States and Special Olympics North America (SONA) has a goal to reach 10,000 schools by the 2023-2024 academic school year. Currently, 26% of Unified Champion Schools are in urban school districts but only 7% are urban schools of the highest need. Special Olympic Illinois is one of 11 U.S. state programs to implement the UCCS initiative, which focuses on expanding inclusive programming within city school districts.

Special Olympics Illinois will be implementing the UCCS initiative in high schools in Rockford Public Schools during the current school year. Rockford Public Schools is the fourth largest school district in Illinois with more than 26,000 students enrolled annually.

Special Olympics Illinois staff as well as Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara and Rockford Public School Superintendent Dr. Ehren Jarett attended Thursday’s press conference at Jefferson High School.

Special Olympics Illinois CEO Dave Breen spoke on the importance of the program to Rockford. “There are no current Unified programs in the area,” Breen noted. Breen added that the partnership plans to implement the UCCS initiative by targeting underserved communities that have young people with the deepest needs.

“Unity is an action,” said Kim Riddering, Chief Operating Officer, Special Olympics Illinois. “Unity is where students with disabilities are routinely included and feel a part of all social activities and opportunities.”

Special Olympics first began in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Long-held biases prevented those with special needs from physical activity or the opportunities to compete, Riddering said. She called Ms. Shriver’s ideas revolutionary for the time and added, “Today, we pursue Ms. Shriver’s call to inclusion by continuing this journey of unity.”

Superintendent Dr. Ehren Jarrett said the new opportunity was a long time coming for students at Rockford Public Schools. “It’s really exciting for our students to have this opportunity at such a large scale,” Dr. Jarett said.

Mayor McNamara shared Dr. Jarrett’s excitement and said Rockford will be a far better place with the UCCS initiative. The mayor spoke to students attending the event, “Just imagine a day that our community—every single person—no matter what age or ability they have can feel that they truly belong, right here in Rockford.”


Click here to learn more about Unified Champion Schools here in Illinois. View the photo album from the day.