Logo SqWebThe Unified Schools program in Osseo Area Schools recently received recognition from Special Olympics Minnesota for creating opportunities for inclusion to thrive throughout the district.

An initiative of Special Olympics, Unified Schools brings special education and general education students together for more inclusive learning opportunities—including Unified culinary arts classes, Unified art classes, and Unified physical education classes.

In just two years, all four District 279 middle schools and three comprehensive high schools have reached the status of Unified Champion School, meaning they are school climates where "students with disabilities feel welcome and are routinely included in, and feel a part of, all activities, opportunities and functions," according to the program website.

"Our relationship with Unified Schools has been a game-changer for our students and families," said Jan Bitzer, student services coordinator in Osseo Area Schools. "It has been inspiring to see students form bonds with kids that they may not have had the chance to get to know without Unified Schools."

This rings especially true for Ben Mildebrandt, a student at Maple Grove Senior High. In what used to be his least favorite class, Ben now looks forward to attending Unified physical education with peers that have become friends because of the connections he has made through the program, according to his mom, Kari Mildebrandt.

In addition to the Unified class offerings, Kari noted that students at Maple Grove Senior High also created "Club US," a Special Olympics Minnesota Unified Club that focuses on building an inclusive environment for all students and staff at the school. The group plans events such as Halloween parties and a Unified Meet and Greet, and also participates in Special Olympics Minnesota's Polar Plunge event to raise money for Unified programming.

"This group [Club US] has done an incredible job of making all students feel part of the school community," she added.

Kari co-chairs the district's Special Education Advisory Council (SEAC) and said she is impressed by the Unified Schools programming she sees throughout Osseo Area Schools.

"It has been so fun to watch 'the magic' of inclusion and Unified Schools unfold," she said. "The positive feedback from students, parents and staff has been overwhelming. We are so grateful for the Unified Schools program and for the students and staff who make inclusion a reality every day!"

For Heidi Segedy, SEAC co-chair, Special Olympics' recognition of Osseo's Unified Schools program simply reinforces the positive feedback she hears from families districtwide.

"Unified [Schools] is a bridge that goes in both directions and creates a connection between students of all types," she said. "Unified has a history and template that ensures success and that has allowed us to create inclusive opportunities."

More to explore: Watch a Feb. 2019 CCX News School Spotlight on the Unified Schools program at Osseo Middle.

Michelle DennardOsseo Education Center's Michelle Dennard has been named Osseo ESPs Local 7325 Educational Support Professional of the Year. Dennard is a Full Service Special Education ESP and has worked for Osseo Area Schools for 15 years. Colleagues describe her as an exceptional advocate for students and a voice for other ESPs.

In her role with District 279, Dennard assists students with self-regulation; helps scholars rebuild relationships with peers; co-facilitates community building circles and restorative chats; and more. She is also part of her site's positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) team and helps lead equity team initiatives throughout the OEC. Away from school, Dennard enjoys volunteering at her church and spending time with her family and grandchildren.