By Mike Kruzman /

National recognition is being given to Hartland High School for an athletics program that promotes inclusivity.

The Unified Sports program aims at working with students towards social inclusion by way of breaking down stereotypes and stigmas about people with intellectual disabilities. A few years ago, the Hartland Unified program began small with 10 peers and 10 athletes. The program has now grown to include 16 athletes and 100 peers. This year, they are being recognized as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School. Hartland High School teacher and Unified Sports coach Lauren DePestel said she believes they have the best students who want to break down the walls and eliminate the stigma.

She told WHMI their students “want the kids in our program to feel like they’re everyone else in the building. I think the perfect example I have is, we have 6’3” football player that’s seen around the building as a great role model, very popular, and he’s walking around the hall with a kid from our program, and you wouldn’t know any different. They’re really included, they have big hearts, they don’t want these kids looked at as anybody else. It’s pretty powerful.”

As a Unified Champion School, Hartland High School will receive national banner recognition for their demonstrated commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 national standards of excellence. Those standards were developed by a national panel of leaders from Special Olympics and the education community. Primary activities within the standards include that students with and without disabilities train and compete as teammates, inclusive youth leadership, and whole school engagement. As a Banner School, Hartland High School has also demonstrated that they have a plan in place to sustain these activities and opportunities for students in the future. Hartland is one of only five schools in Michigan to receive this prestigious recognition. The others are Howell High School, Everett High School, Novi High School, and Meadow Brook Elementary.

DePestel said they hope to have a celebration with the whole school when things get better and assemblies are allowed, potentially in the Spring.

(Photo- Hartland Unified Facebook)