Originally published March 9, 2022 in the Hi-Desert Star.

By Stacy Moore

“Come on, Mr. Monical, let’s do this!”

Audra Nelson eyed the pitch from Yucca Valley High School Principal Justin Monical and kicked it deep into the gym — a double as her team warmed up for the Unified PE kickball game Wednesday morning, March 2.

Students in special education and general education buddied up to form two teams, the Trojan Superstars and Golden Warriors. Other students and teachers cheered them on from the stands.

The program is part of the school’s contract with Special Olympics to be designated as a Unified Champion School — one that works to get general and special education kids working and playing together. Students take physical education classes together, have a Better Together Club and hold events like the kickball game. The next week, they offered mazes and obstacle courses during lunch where general education students will use equipment like goggles to experience a little of what life is like with a disability.

“For a while there, we had big divisions,” said Angela Gay, one of two unified PE specialists for Morongo Unified School District.

“Now they’re mainstreamed in, their buddies walk them to class, walk them to lunch.”

She supervises unified PE programs for 10 Morongo Unified schools, so she can only be at Yucca Valley High one period a day — but in her absence, the students and staff keep it up. “It takes the whole school and the whole school is buying in,” Gay said.

“It helps to promote inclusion, acceptance and creates a camaraderie for the students,” said Donna Powell, adviser for the Better Together Club.

Officers’ posts in the club are shared between general and special education students.

“It’s kind of awesome,” said club Secretary Andrew Lopez.

“I like to call it Better Together Forever because we are there for each other, we protect each other. I love Better Together Club to get along with other people.”

Yucca Valley High School was the first in the district to sign the contract with Olympics to be a Unified Champion School. Twentynine Palms High and Yucca Mesa and Joshua Tree elementary schools have since joined the program and a couple more MUSD schools will start next year, Gay said.

The program is a success, something she measures in the changes it has helped make for the students and their families.

“You know, most of our parents never thought their students would be able to go out into the public or be part of general education and now they have peer buddies and friends,” she said.

“They go out and parents are coming and cheering their kids on in events. The parents are happy and the kids are happy. They have friends and buddies and at lunch they come up and talk to them. I think the overall success is just watching the camaraderie that they have.”

Pauline Montgomery, who teaches children with moderate to severe disabilities, said the program is promoting inclusion.

“I think the main thing is the exposure to each other,” she said.

“They’ll go around campus and general-education kids will come buy and say ‘hi’ at lunch. They’ll come fist pump, high five, talk to them, sit with them, it’s really cool.”

They also just get to hang out and play together.

“We have a blast. It’s so much fun,” she said.

Gigi Monreal, one of her students, said she likes playing with the others in unified PE.

“I really like the buddies and our friends,” said Nelson. “They’re very nice.”

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