“Standing room only.”
At Archbishop John Carroll High School, it’s a description usually reserved for basketball playoffs, graduation, and homecoming. But that’s the phrase spectators are using to describe the packed auditorium during competitions for the school’s first Unified Bocce Ball team.
The team is the first of its kind for Archbishop Carroll and the first Unified Sports Catholic school team in Pennsylvania. Operating under the umbrella of Special Olympics Pennsylvania Interscholastic Unified Sports, and lead by their coach, Ed Scanlan, the team is composed of Archbishop Carroll students Fatima Brown, Madigan Gallagher, Mirabelle Gallagher, Mikayla Kloc, and Elizabeth Woodland, plus Rose “Muffy” Tulskie, Matt Rodgers, and Matt McKeon from St. Katherine School — a special education school located on the same campus.
Beyond sharing school grounds, the two schools have a history of shared programming. The students attend monthly Masses together and participate in the Best Buddies program, where students from each school are paired and given opportunities to develop friendships through group activities and outings.
“Not only does this promote independence for our students with special needs, but it also promotes awareness for everybody — to show abilities and not disabilities.”
The schools see the bocce team as an opportunity to broaden their interscholastic programming and further develop their relationship. “We want our students to be treated as equal peers. And that’s happening through Unified Bocce Ball. General education students and students with special needs come together to form one team where everybody is treated equally,” says Kathleen Gould, Director of Special Education at the Office of Catholic Education (OCE).
“Everybody carries their own weight and is part of that team,” Gould continues. “Not only does this promote independence for our students with special needs, but it also promotes awareness for everybody — to show abilities and not disabilities.”
The team practices twice a week for 60 to 90 minutes, following Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) bylaws. PIAA also requires that no more than 60 percent of the team be composed of either general education or special education students.
“We have been very fortunate to develop a great working relationship with Mike Bovino at Special Olympics Pennsylvania, which provided funding for uniforms, a coaching stipend and the materials to set-up the bocce court,” explains OCE’s Executive Director of Athletics, Stephen Haug. “In addition, Tom Quintois, Archbishop Carroll Athletic Director, has been a tremendous asset to this endeavor and was very familiar with Unified Sports from his previous work experience at Souderton High School.”
For schools looking to start their own Unified Bocce Ball team, Gould believes, “It could work at any high school that has a population comprised of students with qualifying special education needs and their general ed peers.“
For institutions that aren’t as fortunate to have a special education school located within their campus, Gould recommends expanding inclusive programming as a starting point. “As administrators explore more inclusion in our high school programs, then more teams can be developed. That’s the key.”
Since their first match against Souderton Area High School, the Carroll/St. Katherine team has played four more competitions including the Montgomery County Regional Championships — which they won!
Even aside from their victories, the schools already feel like winners. “There has been so much positive feedback from the players on the team, the parents who have been involved, and the faculty who come to games,” recalls Scanlan. “It’s honestly been a really rewarding experience for me and everyone involved — the players, the parents, the coaches, the fans, everybody.”
Based on the mounting interest, Archbishop Carroll is already planning on expanding the program to include two teams next year.
“I’m surprised and delighted that people are already asking about next year and planning to join,” says Scanlan. “It’s becoming a significant part of both communities. It’s unifying our schools and we both want that to continue.”