Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools Evaluation

In 2015-16, 6.7 million students ages 3-21 received special education services, 34 percent of whom had specific learning disabilities. Despite an increase in special education enrollment, however, students with disabilities have lower school completion rates than their peers without disabilities. In 2015, the adjusted cohort graduation rate for students with disabilities stood at 65%, compared to 83% for the general student population. Researchers have focused on estimating the relationship between inclusion and academic performance of students with disabilities, by defining “inclusion” as inclusive placement in general education settings. Social inclusion, however, has received relatively lesser attention when thinking about improving academic outcomes for students with disabilities.

The Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools Model

The Unified Champion Schools (UCS) model is a whole-school intervention that aims to promote social inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities in their schools (by fostering interpersonal relationships and school participation) through inclusive activities that occur within the normative contexts of the school. Key inclusive strategies under UCS include unified sports, inclusive youth leadership, and whole-school awareness and engagement.

The schoolwide approach to promoting social inclusion reflects an ecological approach through ongoing programming that involves the entire school community. Prior studies have shown that implementing the UCS activities promotes positive perceptions and attitudes regarding school and classroom inclusion among students with and without disabilities.

The Study

In the current study, AIR is studying the impact of the UCS model on schoolwide academic performance, measured by overall school performance on graduation rates and dropout rates. This study will examine the effects of the unique whole-school intervention program, which promotes schoolwide social inclusion, on academic performance indicators at the school level. To answer these research questions, AIR is conducting school-level analyses comparing these outcomes across UCS and non-UCS schools from the school years 2010-11 through 2015-16 for the general student population and for students with disabilities specifically. The study will inform evidence on practices that align with the Special Olympics International’s 2016-2020 Global Strategic Plan, which focuses on Special Olympics as a driving force for social inclusion.