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Ritenour High School Earns Designation as a Unified Champion School

Special Olympics Award

Ritenour High School (RHS) has been awarded the prestigious designation of a Special Olympics Unified Champion School, recognizing its commitment to fostering an inclusive environment where students with disabilities can learn, grow, and thrive together.

RHS is only one of 12 schools in Missouri with this designation. The Unified Champion Schools program promotes social inclusion through structured activities that aim to bring systemic change to school climates. The program provides a comprehensive approach to creating a welcoming environment for all students.

Ben Johnson, Unified Champion Schools Manager for the St. Louis area with Special Olympics Missouri, presented RHS with a banner on April 30, 2024, and told school leaders and staff that they are a role model for others to follow.

"To be a Unified Champion School is impressive, said Johnson. “Ritenour High School is one of only 12 schools across Missouri recognized as true leaders in this program. I am beyond impressed and very honored to work with you. Thank you for your outstanding leadership."

Ritenour's achievement results from a collaborative effort among students, faculty, and Special Olympics Missouri. RHS-Special School District (SSD) Coordinator Nathan Dwyer, RHS administrators Dr. Matt Schuler and Orianna Moccio, RHS Counselor Linze Berry, and SSD teachers developed the school's vision and plan for inclusion. 

The vision of an inclusive school then took shape with the support of SSD teachers Alyssa Yakimov, Jenna Rodriguez, Abby Wallace, and Peter Blow. RHS’ art teacher, Paul Kennedy, and physical education teachers, John Howard and Matt Elder, tailored their lessons for their unified classes where both special education and general education students thrive.

Yakimov said the hard work to fully implement the unified program at RHS has made a huge difference for her students as well as for her as a special education teacher. 

“Unified classes provide our SSD students with the opportunity to participate in general education classes that are tailored to their level of education while at the same time, helping them build connections with students and staff throughout the building,” Yakimov said. “These classes are a great opportunity for our general education students to get involved and make a difference.”

Yakimov added, “This experience has made me feel more connected to the school community because it provides me the opportunity to engage and interact with a wider range of students and staff.”   

Kailyn Ware’s Leadership students work side-by-side in various school settings, supporting their peers during Husky time, physical education and art classes and in extra-curricular activities.

One key aspect of Ritenour's success is its focus on inclusive youth leadership. A core group of student leaders, including those with and without disabilities, plan events together. This year, the group made homecoming a more inclusive event by having students from special education programs present the structure and goal of becoming a Unified Champion School and the opportunities for student participation. They also planned a successful unified student bowling event that fostered a culture of inclusion. 

The new activities were in addition to the school’s annual Special Olympics Track & Field event, coordinated by Denise Schindler, an RHS family and consumer science teacher.  The event involves more than 350 RHS students organizing and running events and activity booths for more than 250 Special Olympic athletes from Ritenour and other schools in St. Louis County.

Elizabeth Weissler, an RHS senior in Student Leadership, said the opportunities to plan and engage in unified activities such as a friendship dance, a Cardinals game and Special Olympics have been meaningful to her.

“These opportunities have helped me bond with the students and create friendships,” said Weissler. “I have learned more about how to be a friend to the SSD students, and it has been fun getting to know them!”

Dwyer was thrilled by the level of interest and collaboration among the students and staff.

“The response by the students and staff at Ritenour High School exceeded our initial expectations, said Dwyer. “The successful implementation of the program is a testament to the Ritenour School District's commitment to fostering a community of acceptance and inclusion for all students.”