(COLORADO SPRINGS) — A big round of applause on Tuesday afternoon, July 25, as Colorado Springs School District 11 (D11) celebrated their partnership with Special Olympics Colorado in signing the first Unified Sports Program initiative in El Paso County.

“We’re all very excited, as I represent not just our staff and our students, but all of our community and our Board of Education,” said D11 Superintendent, Michael Gaal. “To be the first Unified Champions School District in El Paso County, gives us a tremendous opportunity to continue the strategic initiatives on ensuring every student is known in a completely inclusive and least restrictive environment.”

In the upcoming 2023-2024 school year, four high schools in D11 will be Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools by providing more athletic opportunities. Specifically at Coronado High School, Doherty High School, Mitchell High School, and Palmer High School.

“This opportunity is going to give all of our kids an opportunity and a place to belong,” said D11 Director of Athletics, Chris Noll. “The whole family atmosphere, the ability to go out and collaborate, learn how to be a good member of a team, but at the same time, it’s okay to compete and it’s okay to want to win and it’s okay to work super hard to try to beat somebody.”

Noll’s excitement for this initiative was clear in speaking with FOX21, especially as he shared why the school district is so important to him.

“I’m a District 11 product,” Noll said. Kindergarten all the way through my senior year in High School. My kids graduated from District 11. My wife graduated from District 11. We are a District 11 family… proud moment for us, but also really, really excited about it.”

D11 will offer bowling in the fall, basketball in the winter, and track and field in the spring.

“How great that we’ll have students with disabilities who are able to brag that they’re a three-sport athlete in District 11,” said Gaal.

The signing took place at the Special Olympics Colorado Unified Champion Schools Conference which advocates for inclusion in schools across the state.

“We’re really excited that Special Olympics Colorado is having its inaugural Unified Champion Schools conference with over 225 participants here today,” said Special Olympics Colorado, Urban Schools Manager, Maricela Shukie.

Shukie also opened up about the impact sports has had on her own daughter.

“So, my youngest is an athlete and when she is with her team, she feels like she belongs,” Shukie said. “She wears her jersey and in fact… sometimes we go to bed, she has her medals on the wall and in the morning, she wakes up and she says, good morning medals.”

The opportunity to play sports and become involved in a team, is one which D11 takes great pride in.

“Anyone who participates in both sports and or extracurricular activities is going to show more engagement and school, higher academic success, and usually less behavior problems,” Gaal said. “So, this idea of being a part of a team really resonates with us as we try to continue to grow our opportunities for children.”

Superintendent Gaal shared how this accomplishment is made by the entire school community coming together. The work of D11 is already serving as an inspiration to others in district.

“Having that commitment, verbal commitment and written commitment is so special,” Shukie said. “It’s special to all the folks here in Colorado Springs and the district. But it really has a ripple effect across all the districts. After they signed, I had two different people from two different districts saying, ‘how do we get this done? how do we sign too? So, they’re making waves.”