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Live unified: Central DeWitt Special Olympics athlete Bastian Green raises his arm in celebration, during an assembly celebrating the high school being recognized as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School.

As he began to speak at the all-school pep assembly-style program last Wednesday afternoon, Central DeWitt High School (CDHS) Principal George Pickup had to admit, his heart was racing.

After all, the school doesn’t receive national recognition very often.

The assembly was held so Special Olympics Iowa could present CDHS staff and students with their “Special Olympics National Unified Champion School” banner.

CDHS is one of less than 6% of schools in the nation — and just one of three in Iowa — that can display the banner in its building.

The recognition comes after the school met the standards of excellence, which focus on Special Olympics Unified Sports (where students with and without disabilities train and compete as teammates), inclusive youth leadership and whole-school engagement.

“I’m very proud right now, of what this means for our school and more importantly, what it’s about,” Pickup shared. “Saber pride.”

Pickup, together with Special Olympics athletes, staff and “Best Buddies” (students who assist athletes) wore purple t-shirts that read, “Changing the world is a team sport,” as Bryan Coffey, Director of Unified Programming at Special Olympics Iowa, addressed the student body.

“Of nearly 27,000 high schools in the country, only a small percentage are being recognized nationally this year,” Coffey explained. “Between 50 and 60.”

Megan Jackson, intermediate and middle school special education teacher, said the fact that the high school has made this achievement is nothing short of remarkable.

“It’s amazing that we were able to earn this,” Jackson shared. “I always knew our students, staff, administration and even the community have been so supportive of our Special Olympics team — and now, our Unified Team, recognizing our athletes like every other athlete in the district.”

Jackson applied for the recognition, together with CDHS student Dane Egesdal and 2021 graduate Lexi Vetter.

Jackson credits the students for making Special Olympics at Central DeWitt what it is today.

“Lexi and Dane are both passionate about inclusion and respect for all,” she noted. “They both have assisted with the program since their eighth-grade year, starting out in Peer Physical Education class and then going into the Best Buddy program. They both have been eager to advocate for equality and respect for our athletes, making sure they are represented like every other student.”

One of those athletes, Mateo Perez, spoke at last week’s assembly about what inclusion — from his own perspective — really means. 

“For me, it means I’m appreciated for what I am,” he related. “For my whole life, I’ve experienced what it’s like to live with autism. I’m grateful for my friends, my family and my teachers.”

Jackson said while the Central DeWitt School District has made a great deal of growth when it comes to embracing Special Olympics and its athletes, there still is more work to do.

She would like to see the elementary, intermediate and middle school achieve the same recognition. Staff members currently are planning more activities at the intermediate and middle schools to make that happen.

Jackson expressed her gratitude for those who have helped the CDHS Unified Team, including assistant coach Deb Meyne, and middle school physical education teacher Karen Bertolino, who assisted with scores and helping coach behind the scenes.

“Our Unified Team members have always been willing to do whatever they needed to help us get to this point,” she said. “The administration at all of the schools always have been receptive to ideas/activities we propose to implement. They gave us support in any way they could.”