Trabuco Hills High School earns state award for special education

A Trabuco Hills High School program established to promote inclusion on the field and in the classroom has earned a special state accolade that recognizes exemplary practices in special education.

Last week, state schools chief Tony Thurmond announced that Trabuco Hills High’s Unified Champion School program, which has since been replicated throughout the Saddleback Valley Unified School District, was the sole recipient of the 2019 Grazer Outstanding Achievement in Learning — or GOAL — award.

SVUSD staff memebers

Joined by students, staff and district officials, Trabuco Hills High teacher and Unified Champion School program advisor Kara Johnson accepts the GOAL award June 20 in Sacramento. The award was presented by Tom Adams, deputy superintendent for the California Department of Education, and Kristin Wright, director of the Special Education Division.

Presented by the California Advisory Commission on Special Education, the honor annually recognizes outstanding programs that serve students with disabilities.

The Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program was established in 2008 to encourage tolerance and camaraderie by creating inclusive sports and leadership opportunities at elementary, middle and high school campuses. The model, which receives funding through the U.S. Department of Education, features activities designed to equip young people with the tools and training to build climates of acceptance.

Trabuco Hills High in Mission Viejo was the first campus in Orange County to become a Unified Champion School, earning the designation in 2016. The following year, THS became the first school in Southern California to offer unified physical education. The campus has since expanded the unified model into drama, video production, band, art, ceramics, cheer, varsity sports and student leadership, as well as curricular and noncurricular clubs.

While the Special Olympics of Southern California provided funding for the first three years, the program at Trabuco Hills has become self-sustaining through fundraising efforts, according to the state Department of Education.

“The inclusion practices initiated through this program provide a tremendous benefit to not only the students participating, but the entire school community,” State Superintendent Thurmond said. “When students with and without disabilities are provided authentic opportunities to learn and play together, this creates a climate where inclusion is the norm and diversity is honored.”

The three major components of the Unified Champion Schools program are whole school engagement, inclusive youth leadership and inclusive unified sports, but approaches can vary greatly from school to school.

The strategies employed by Trabuco Hills High have made it a model for other schools and districts to follow. In fact, building on Trabuco Hills’ success, Saddleback Valley Unified has already added nine additional Unified Champion School programs, becoming the first Unified Champion School district in Orange County in 2018. For the 2019-20 school year, SVUSD plans to have 30 percent of its campuses participating.

The GOAL award was established in 2005-06 and is funded by Hollywood producer Brian Grazer’s family. This year’s accolade was presented during the June 20 California Advisory Commission on Special Education meeting in Sacramento. For more information, visit the CDE’s GOAL Award webpage.