Students in special and general ed unify over basketball at tournament

Nearly 100 players suited up in jerseys and laced up their basketball shoes Tuesday at Westminster High School for the inaugural Unified Sports Holiday Hoops Classic tournament for students in the Huntington Beach Union High School District.

The event, sponsored by Special Olympics Southern California, brought together students in special and general education from Edison, Fountain Valley and Westminster high schools to play ball.

“Students with disabilities as well as their non-disabled peers have the opportunity to interact with a new group of students,” said Doug Siembieda, the district’s director of special education. “This activity helps to develop a greater awareness of differences in people, learn to communicate and work with someone who may be different than them.”

Siembieda said the idea for Tuesday’s tournament came after one of the district’s adapted physical education teachers attended a conference where teachers from Los Angeles County schools shared their experiences in Special Olympics Unified Sports tournaments.

“We decided to try it at Westminster High School first, on a smaller scale, to see if it was a program that could be feasible and sustainable for our district,” Siembieda said.

In preparation for the tournament, students from general-education PE classes went to adapted PE classes to practice four days a week for two weeks.

“Some of the best parts of a teaching job is to be able to teach a skill and see a student put it into play and see them so excited about having accomplished it,” said Sue Williams, a Westminster High adaptive PE teacher who helped organize the tournament. “One student playing [in the tournament] couldn’t dribble a ball last year and now he’s dribbled it the full length of the court.”

Each school brought members of their cheer squads to show support for their teams.

“We are hoping this will just be the first step toward other Unified Sports tournaments and eventually expand to invite schools outside of [the district] to participate,” Siembieda said.

Twitter: @AlexandraChan10