FULTON, NY – The Fulton City School District finished the Unified Basketball season with plenty of smiles as it marked the completion of the first program of its kind in the district.
Run in partnership with the Special Olympics, this marked the first year for Section III of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association to offer unified sports, following only to Section V who had previously implemented such programs.
Specifically for Fulton City School District, a unified basketball team paired 12 special education students referred to as “athletes” with five general education students referred to as “partners.”
The team was part of a league of six teams from school districts throughout the section including East Syracuse Minoa, Baldwinsville, Fayetteville-Manlius, Liverpool and West Genesee.
The teams traveled to play regulation basketball games against one another and recently held an award ceremony following the final game at West Genesee High School which left all athletes with a commemorative medal and t-shirt, as pride and excitement exuded the athletes.
“To see these kids get so excited about being able to participate, to see their smiles, their desire to score, all of that made this so much fun. It’s a great thing for the community to have an inclusive program to give all kids the opportunity to compete,” said Fulton’s coach, Joshua Viscome.
Coach Viscome, a counselor at GRB High School, along with assistant coach Joe Meeks, special education teacher at GRB High School, were approached for the position given their experience with coaching in the district.
“I didn’t exactly know what it entailed when getting into it, I was just asked to sit on a committee but the more I learned, I knew it was going to be a great experience,” Viscome said.
Beginning in April, the coaches led the team through two practices a week working on the fundamentals of basketball to prepare them for their upcoming games.
During games, the team would play three athletes and two partners at a time to help guide the game.
“The partners were really there to direct the flow of the game. They brought the ball up the court, helped to set up and run plays. They were not there to take over and they were not there just to push the ball off on our athletes. We really wanted to make it an authentic experience for all our players,” said district athletic director, Chris Ells.
Viscome and Ells both agreed that the partners did a “wonderful job” in playing their role.
“Our partners were so good at sharing the ball, they made it easy to get everyone a shot. We had great kids to help our team in its first year,” Viscome said.
One of Ells’ favorite parts of the program overall was watching the interaction between the athletes and the partners, he said.
“I have to give credit to the five general education students we had, they did a phenomenal job,” Ells said.
Ells was instrumental in bringing Unified Sports to Fulton to be a part of the first year of participation in Section III.
“The more I read about it and learned about it, the more I just knew this was such a great opportunity to push for athletic opportunities for all students in our school,” he said.
The new program was well received by district administration as Superintend of Schools, Brian Pulvino referred to it as “powerful” and described watching a game as “one of the most touching experiences” in his educational career.
Community support was one of the driving forces behind the season’s success, according to Ells.
“Having the community join in was phenomenal. This league had such great benefits for our special education and regular education students and everyone really embraced them,” Ells said. “They had such a great fan base with strong support from other sports teams and fellow students showing up at home games to cheer them on and of course their families. It was great to see parent’s reactions to being able to see their child play and the child’s reaction to seeing their family in the crowd.”
The program was so successful in its first year that Ells predicts the league will likely double in size next year, of which FCSD fully intends to participate again.
Eventually, the Unified Sports program at Fulton may grow to incorporate other sports, though at this time that is not yet being pursued, Ells said.