Think back a moment to your high school gym class. Actually, think back to just prior to gym class, when you were in the locker room getting ready. Was it an experience you even thought that much about? The changing of clothes, the locking of a locker, that kind of thing?

Probably not. For you it most likely was just a matter of changing shirts and heading back to the gym.

For special needs students, though, even the cut-and-dried process of prepping for phys-ed might not be (pardon the pun) a slam dunk. Then there’s actually getting to phys-ed class and siding up for teams, figuring out who plays what positions, and taking your place on the field of play.

For much of the last half-century, schools have shunted students who don’t automatically understand these basics into special classes and, for the most part, patronized them. Bud Kowal would rather get special needs students’ hands as dirty as everyone else’s at Ewing High School.

And you know what? Everybody seems to like his approach.

The program that enables special needs students to take part in games and activities just like anyone else at EHS is the Unified Physical Education program, or UPE, which is new this year. Its first iteration has six general-ed students and 18 special needs students. Kowal, the district’s athletic director, said UPE is an offshoot of Ewing’s special services program.

Howard Louth, the district’s director of special services, operations and grant management, said UPE stems from Ewing’s Project Unified Club, which helps administer the special needs programs that help students function in the everyday world. Project Unified is involved in things like job training.

Dave Hauserman, Ewing’s district supervisor of special education, special class programs and grant management, said that the Project Unified Program operates Blue Devil Printing, in which special needs kids do printing jobs for teachers and staff, and the on-campus coffee shop, where program students learn to take money, make change and serve their fellow students, just as they would on a job in the real world.

Modeling this integrative approach, the UPE program follows a simple principle—kids are kids, and they live in the world at large, whether they have developmental or physical challenges or not, so why not have them interact the way other kids in school interact, all the time? Which is to say, together. In UPE, special needs kids are in the same class as students in the general education program, not relegated to activities that cut them off from their peers.

“If we believe that physical education and being on teams is important for learning lessons you can’t learn in a classroom,” Kowal said, “then these opportunities should be available to all the students.”

Those lessons, for the record, include handling adversity, working with teammates, and realizing you’re not going to win every time. They translate to the world outside of school in a number of ways.

“You’re not going to get every job you apply for,” Kowal said. “You’re not going to get picked by every person you want to date.”

The thing is, people don’t learn those lessons by being coddled or segregated, he said. They learn them by being among everyone else, which is why UPE has general-program and special needs-program students in one class. The general-ed students help special need students with the basic processes, like how to get ready for gym class and how to play a particular game, and then the game is played.

And it’s a competitive game, by the way. Teams—usually small groups divvied up in such a way as to make a game fun and competitive for the level of play a special needs student can reach—will win and teams will lose, and special needs students will work at it and fail and keep working. The point, therefore, is not so much to win, it’s to keep playing. And Kowal admits he wouldn’t be where he is today without athletics and the lessons they taught him.

“I had coaches and teachers who had a huge impact on my life,” he said. He grew up in Rancocas and studied health, fitness, and physical education at what was Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) and at Slippery Rock University.

He began teaching at Rancocas Valley Regional High School because he wanted to be the athletic director there. Eventually, he was. He also coached soccer, baseball, and basketball. Ultimately he became the district’s curriculum chairman, which he said was unusual, given that he was a phys-ed teacher.

But therein lies Kowal’s point, and how his story relates to that of the UPE at Ewing.
“Having someone believe in you for who you are and not what they think you are” made all the difference, he said. “A lot of superintendents would not have picked a phys-ed guy to be in charge of the whole curriculum.”

When Kowal came to Ewing in 2004, he wanted to pay that faith forward by letting all the kids in the district show who they really are on the field, rather than who anyone might think they are, or should be.

Beyond the lessons of athletics, Kowal’s grounding in building curricula helped set UPE in motion in 2015. The Ewing district’s ties to the College of New Jersey, which itself has deep roots in the state’s Special Olympics program, also helped define how UPE would take shape. The program borrows much of how the Special Olympics work, in terms of competition, partnerships, and activities. UPE is now the regular curriculum for special needs students and an elective for general-ed students.

UPE also functions as a springboard to getting kids in Ewing to take part in the Special Olympics. Which reminds Kowal of something that happened several years ago that solidifies his approach to having specials needs kids push themselves in general company.

A special needs elementary student was in an adaptive phys-ed class at Ewing with a teacher’s aide who would physically move the child’s legs so he could kick a ball. A teaching student from TCNJ said to let the kid try to kick the ball on his own. When the kid was given the chance, and actually kicked it, Kowal said, “the aide almost fell down.”

“Maybe the child did not do the thing because he was never given the chance,” he said. So the design of UPE is, nobody is moving other people around so much that they’re doing all the work for anyone. If there is a soccer ball to be kicked, the special needs student’s legs will have to do it on their own.

This lesson on finding one’s own potential is not lost on the special needs kids, Kowal said. But it’s not lost on the general-ed kids either. Their presuppositions are indeed changing. And the message that it’s actually rewarding and fun to interact with “different” kids is getting through.

“This program is so beneficial for everybody involved because they get to think about someone other then themselves,” he said.

Louth said he’s impressed so far with how much general-ed students are getting from—and giving to—the program.

“The best outcome of all this is the student involvement, how compassionate and caring they are,” he said. “And the real testament to that is, this is not just a feel-good program, it’s an effective program.”

Already it’s so effective, Hauserman said, that a similar program is being developed for FisherMiddle School, with hopes of taking down to the elementary school.

“We’re trying to get it so that by the time the kids get to high school, this is just what you do,” he said.

UPE is part of the district’s special education curriculum, so it’s not costing any additional money to operate the program, Louth said.

But it still takes the willingness of the Board of Education and the superintendent’s office to let it happen, and he said it’s important to acknowledge the higher-ups who make a program like UPE possible.

The most positive thing about this program as far as Kowal is concerned “is that we do not treat people differently,” he said. Even though he acknowledges that the special needs kids in UPE are different. But that’s a good thing.

“They’re different,” Kowal said. “Just like everybody else. And just like anybody else, before they get a chance to do something, they don’t know what they’re able to do.”