As the first notes of “What a Wonderful World” crackled from a set of large speakers on the football field behind Twin Ridge Elementary School, a row of little girls got to their feet, each one holding a pair of sparkly pompoms. On the grassy hill behind them, hundreds of students swayed to the music.
“I see trees of green, red roses, too,” the voice of Louis Armstrong warbled as the children waved colorful scarves and danced in the morning’s bright sunlight.
Twin Ridge Elementary School had plenty to celebrate Thursday morning. Earlier this fall, it became the first school in Frederick County and the only elementary school in Maryland to earn national banner recognition from the Special Olympics for its efforts to provide inclusive sports and activities that all students can enjoy, regardless of ability.
Just before 10 a.m., county and state officials — including Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford — joined Twin Ridge students and staff members to commemorate the school’s achievement. Sarah Ford, a special education teacher at Twin Ridge and “the heart” of the school’s team for inclusivity, according to Principal Heather Hobbs, served as the event’s “mistress of ceremonies.”
Before Ford began her remarks, she led the students in taking a deep breath. She was a little nervous, and she was sure they were, too. But that was OK, she told them. She felt honored to lead the audience through the day’s agenda, she said.
“It’s with great pride that I can say that all are welcome here, and we are better together,” she said slowly and clearly. She let out a little laugh as the crowd cheered in response.
Twin Ridge became a Special Olympics Unified Champion School during the 2017-18 school year, when it began its “Young Athletes” program — an early childhood sport and play curriculum designed by Special Olympics for kids with and without intellectual disabilities.
Since then, the school has created its “Unified Champions Club,” which allows students of all abilities to work together in artistic, musical and athletic activities, celebrated Diabetes Awareness Month and Autism Awareness Week and organized other programs and events to encourage a culture of inclusivity among students.
Mackenzie Irvin, senior director of inclusive health and fitness for Special Olympics Maryland, first came to Twin Ridge in 2017 as the Young Athletes coordinator for the state organization. The next year, she sat down with the school’s vice principal and physical education teacher to share a “little idea” of hers to make Twin Ridge the first elementary school in the state to achieve national banner recognition status.
They were likely intimidated and overwhelmed by the long road ahead of them, Irvin said, but they enthusiastically agreed. And three years later, seeing Twin Ridge celebrate its national banner recognition is likely the biggest honor Irvin has experienced both personally and professionally, she said.
As she spoke a little boy wandered up to the microphone to stand next to her.
“I am so happy to share it with some of my favorite people who have been here from the start,” she said, smiling at the student behind her mask. “Just like James. Right?”
“Yeah!” he replied. He hovered at Irvin’s side for much of her speech, occasionally pulling the microphone toward his face to add a comment or two. Back when he began in the school’s Young Athletes program, he never would have been so brave to come up in front of such a big audience and speak, Irvin said proudly.
“Now he doesn’t stop!” she said. She gave him a high-five as the crowd cheered.
Later on, Janice Spiegel — director of education and special initiatives for the county government — delivered a proclamation to the school on behalf of County Executive Jan Gardner with help from the students seated before her. Each time the document said “whereas,” she pointed at the crowd of kids, who shouted the word back at her.
Frederick County Public Schools Superintendent Terry Alban also spoke at the celebration. She instructed the students to hold up the bright red rally towels each had been given and read the three words written across the fabric in white lettering: “CHOOSE TO INCLUDE.”
“All of the students at Twin Ridge Elementary School have made an important choice to include and to care,” she said. “I hope that what we are celebrating today stays with you as a choice for the rest of your life.”
“You have made us FCPS proud, and let’s wave those rally towels one more time!” she added, smiling as the sea of kids in front of her exuberantly shook their towels above their heads.
Near the end of the ceremony, Will and Tenley Kinloch took their turn at the microphone. The siblings had both participated in the school’s Unified Champions Club and wanted to share what it had meant to them. They had made new friends, tried out lots of fun activities and learned about how to make others feel included, even if they were different from their peers.
“To me,” Will said, “the theme of the unified champion club was including people no matter what their differences or disabilities might be. And I think that if all schools around the world had a club like this, it would make the world a better place.”