Deena C. Bouknight, Contributing Writer
At a mid-March afternoon practice, about 20 Franklin High School students gathered in the gym. Smiles, laughter, high-fives, and shouts of encouragement ensued. Yet, this was not a regular basketball practice. Instead, both general education and intellectually disabled students took to the court to practice shooting, dribbling, and general playing skills.
Co-ed students have been practicing weekly together since late last fall in anticipation of the first annual Unify: March Madness, which takes place Thursday, March 28, in the Panther Den, a.k.a. Franklin High School (FHS) gym. The goal of the event is multifaceted, according to Penny Moffitt, FHS business education teacher and yearbook advisor: Build character among students; provide leadership opportunities; offer ways for various student groups to serve; involve the community; and, allow special needs students a chance to shine. Hence, the title Unify: March Madness.
“We hope to build on this idea in the future,” said Moffitt. “This is just one piece of the puzzle of building community within the school.”
“To see these regular education students out here encouraging and cheering, and for special needs students to have partners they can hang around with to feel a part of the school – that’s what our school is excellent at,” said Sherri Houston, an exceptional children’s teacher who is helping to coach intellectually disabled students for the March 28 event.
Both current and alumni intellectually disabled students will participate in the basketball game. “They love physical activities,” said Houston about her students. “That’s the highlight of their day. So far the planning and preparation for this event has gone above and beyond my expectations.”
Health and physical education teacher Bekah Brooks, who also coaches volleyball and basketball, said she believes Unify: March Madness, “will have an impact on Macon County and our school. I’ve enjoyed every second of our practices.”
FHS senior Shanlee Angel said she has always had an interest in children with special needs and was on board to help organize Unify: March Madness after Moffitt showed her a video of another school hosting a similar event.
“I’m on the yearbook staff and she asked me to be a student leader for this event. I’m not playing but helping to coordinate it. And, oh, my gosh, [the special needs students] have already loved these practices so much. I can’t wait to see their faces on the night of the event. It’s going to be so much fun for everyone.”
Moffitt explained that there are approximately 10 students leading the charge on the event, but 50-plus “partners” – mostly students and some faculty – are involved in Unify: March Madness.
Opening ceremonies before the basketball game will begin at 6 p.m. and will include the introduction of the players and the National Anthem performed by the FHS B-Naturals singers. Entertainment between quarters as well as half-time performances will be provided by Franklin Indoor Percussion, Panther Sounds, and FHS cheer and dance teams. The FHS Booster Club will offer concessions. The event is free and open to the public.
“We would love for Macon County Schools employees to attend,” said Moffitt. “Franklin High School and our student body welcome the Macon County community to come and enjoy this very special night.”