Starting in 2018-19, South Middleton School District will offer a unified indoor bocce program as a winter sport at Boiling Springs High School.
The program is an outgrowth of the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools initiative that seeks to promote social inclusion through planned activities affecting the school community.
The school board in July approved a proposal to field at least one team of special needs students partnered with an equal number of traditional education students who would serve as buddies and mentors.
“We can’t wait for it to kick off,” board president Michael Berk said. “It’s a great opportunity to involve a segment of students who otherwise do not have an opportunity to participate in athletics.”
The team will represent the Bubblers in competitive matches with other local districts that offer indoor bocce. The season runs from December to March and culminates in district playoffs that qualify teams for a state tournament held at the same time and venue as the PIAA state basketball championship.
The bocce team will be treated like any other interscholastic sports team and all its student athletes will be required to have a physical examination and signed consent forms.
Special Olympics Pennsylvania will provide the equipment, uniforms, coach’s stipend and technical support needed to run the bocce program at Boiling Springs High School. The only direct cost to the district is $370 for transportation to local meets.
Karl Heimbach, South Middleton’s new athletic director, encountered unified sports activities when he worked for public schools in Maryland. That state requires its countywide school districts to provide a sports program each season that engages special needs and traditional education students.
Heimbach carried that concept over to his job as athletic director of the Columbia Borough School District. Columbia High School formed a bocce team that competed last year in two matches against Northern York High School.
“It was a great success,” Heimbach said. “It’s just a tremendous experience to see the growth and positive things that occur for everyone involved.”
“The special needs students could not wait until practice and the competitions,” Heimbach said. “When I walked down the hall, they would give me a high-five.”
In interviews for the South Middleton job, Heimbach told school officials that he wanted to bring the idea to Boiling Springs High School. “The administration has been great and very supportive of this,” he said. “It’s going to be a win-win for all our students and community.”
Gerry Schwille is the athletic director for Northern York which started its unified indoor bocce program last November. “It went over very big,” he said. Within two days of announcing the program to students, the school had enough players for a team that defeated Columbia at the district playoffs but lost to a team from Upper Dauphin Area High School.
Home bocce matches in South Middleton will be played in the gymnasium using a portable bocce court made out of PVC piping, Heimbach said. Special Olympics will provide the court to Boiling Springs High School. Depending on the response, Heimbach might purchase a second bocce court to allow for more student involvement.
The program will be open to all students in grades 9-12. At least six students are needed to field a team, half of which need to be traditional education students.
“We have a strong special education program,” Heimbach said. “This is going to just add to what we already do. The interaction with each other … getting to know and understand each other. … Those lifelong skills is what it is all about.”