Hoggard High’s Unified Club helps create school and community of inclusion

Weeks after receiving an honor in late September, Emerald Boyd received word another award might be in the offing.
Published: Nov. 6, 2023 at 5:30 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 6, 2023 at 6:35 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A big red banner hangs in the main entrance to Hoggard High School in Wilmington. It’s tough not to notice it. It’s from Special Olympics North Carolina, signifying that Hoggard is one of six Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools in the state, honoring the school for “..meeting 10 national standards of excellence in the areas of inclusion, advocacy and respect.”

Weeks after receiving that honor in late September, Emerald Boyd, a Special Education Teacher at Hoggard and co-advisor for the school’s Unified Club, received word another award might be in the offing.

“We got an email from our regional Special Olympics rep that, ‘Hey, you might want to get the club together tomorrow, because an announcement’s coming out’,” Ms. Boyd said. “We’re like, ‘What’s this?’.”

The next day, Ms. Boyd’s Special Education students and club members watched as ESPN announced Hoggard High School made the network’s Honor Roll, saluting the work being done by students in the Unified Club and the administration, to give all students with intellectual disabilities the chance to take part in school activities, work and train alongside fellow Viking classmates, and play on one of the school’s unified sports teams.

“Being named to the ESPN Honor Roll is a testament to you, the students, with the support of your staff and administration, alongside Special Olympics, for all your hard work,” ESPN anchor Randy Scott said in the announcement. “You are creating not only a school of inclusion, but a world of inclusion. Your school has met the ten standards of excellence. You are a nationally recognized Unified Champion School, and now, an ESPN Honor Roll School.”

“It’s really cool,” Ms. Boyd said. “But it’s not something we really went out seeking, which I think makes it more meaningful that we are being recognized at a national level and get to represent North Carolina as the ESPN Honor Roll School, and that we are the model and example of what it should be.”

Hoggard’s Unified Club boasts more than 200 active members, according to Ms. Boyd and student club president Logan Ponnett. You’ll find more than two dozen of those students in first period Honors Service Learning, an inclusive PE class where they work alongside many of Ms. Boyd’s special education students to help them improve their athletic skills or train in their favorite sports.

“It’s open to any student that is interested,” Ms. Boyd said about Unified Club. “The goal is to partner students without disabilities with students with intellectual disabilities, for them to forge friendships through sports activities. It also a goal for the students without disabilities to hone their leadership skills.”

“Typically, these kids with special needs are taught the skills to socialize with society, and how to interact with society,” said Logan’s father, Kevin Ponnett, who has another son Mason with down syndrome and autism, and he is one of Ms. Boyd’s students. “A lot of these kids have either developmental disabilities, cognitive disabilities or learning disabilities, and we’re teaching them how to interact with society. But what Unified Club does is, it teaches kids who are typically developing to interact with kids with special needs, and they have the ability to learn those things and do those things. I think it’s just a great concept in the way that it’s done. I think it’s amazing.”

Along with leading the Unified Club, Logan Ponnett is also one of the leaders of the Vikings’ baseball team. Seeing some of his teammates and friends join Unified Club to work with Mason and other students, has helped grow the school’s efforts to foster an inclusive atmosphere and community.

“From elementary school to middle school to now in high school, I’ve always been in (Mason’s) class,” Logan said. “I’ve always been in the gym classes with him, I’ve been outside of school with him. To see many other students at school involved with Mason is super-exciting. I love it because now he’s making friends of his own.”

Along with building relationships through the inclusive PE class, there is work being done. The club members can receive honors credit for taking the class. According to Ms. Boyd, some have taken part in the class without getting credit, because of the connections they’ve developed with their classmates. The special education students use the class to sharpen their athletic abilities, train for Special Olympics games or just get in their morning workout.

“We play frisbee, basketball, and some yoga,” said junior Max Tanny. “Then we walk, we do some exercise and have a lot of fun.”

“Sometimes I work out at home, sometimes I don’t,” said Fabion Felder, a freshman at Hoggard. “It will just help me get my morning exercise in. If I didn’t do it at home, I get to do it over here at school.”

The Unified Club has proven its name rings true. The students have unified the Hoggard High School campus community, and helped bring the school statewide and national praise for being inclusive.

“It was always something I just did, because of my brother Mason,” Logan Ponnett said. “I thought it was a great idea, and it was fun. And it was such a good thing to unify people together. But, to receive this recognition is super cool, because, you know, it’s ESPN, it’s the Special Olympics. It’s all national stuff.”

Hoggard High School is now a national example of what should be done to include, and to unify. So that every student feels like they belong.

“In a school this big (2200 students) the fact that my kids have a place and are a part of Hoggard High School, just gives me goosebumps,” Ms. Boyd said. “It’s so impactful to their life. That’s how it should be. That’s what should happen in their day, that they see their peers in the hallway and giving high-fives and say, ‘what’s up?’ That’s what should happen. It’s such a little high school experience. But, it’s so, so big!”

Hoggard High has several unified teams that compete in sports that include track, kickball, bowling and volleyball. Ms. Boyd is not sure when the banner for making the ESPN Honor Roll will arrive. But she said they want to have a ceremony to unveil and hang it for the community to see.