Hoxsie, Park schools blaze trail for unified basketball teams

Posted 2/15/24

Two of Warwick’s elementary schools will make history on March 21 at 3:30 p.m.

That’s the date that Hoxsie and Park’s Unified Basketball teams- aimed at unifying students with …

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Hoxsie, Park schools blaze trail for unified basketball teams


Two of Warwick’s elementary schools will make history on March 21 at 3:30 p.m.

That’s the date that Hoxsie and Park’s Unified Basketball teams- aimed at unifying students with intellectual disabilities and students without them- will play the first-ever unified game at the elementary level in Rhode Island schools. The two, alongside Curbin-McCabe, Potter-Burns and Elizabeth Baldwin elementary schools, both in Pawtucket, are the first elementary schools in the state with teams, though Pawtucket’s teams have yet to schedule any games.

Hoxsie principal Gary McCoombs doubles as the school’s Unified Basketball head coach. McCoombs said that the idea to form a team at Hoxsie after another student invited him to her Unified Basketball game between Warwick Vets and Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School.

“It was such an amazing experience watching on how all the kids interacted- really heartwarming,” McCoombs said. “I’d been thinking ever since I went to that game how I could get that program started at the elementary level.”

From there, McCoombs asked other principals in the district if they would be interested in starting a team as well. Park principal Daniel Sylvestre jumped on the idea, and the two schools have gotten their programs going since.

“All of our kids are really excited,” Sylvestre said. “I had three or four students come up to me today saying ‘Basketball practice is today, right?’”

Sylvestre is one of Park’s head coaches, alongside fifth-grade teacher Lisa Napolitano, and the two have received help from other teachers acting as assistant coaches. McCoombs said that Hoxsie has seven volunteer coaches as well.

Team building and preparation

Camaraderie and acceptance are the names of the game, according to McCoombs. Hoxsie’s team consists of seventeen players- nine non-special education students and eight special education students. Within the team, the players with disabilities are referred to as “athletes” and the players without are known as “buddies.” Park currently has fifteen players, with Sylvestre saying that there’s a little bit of room left for other students that would like to join.

“[They set] a huge example,” Tanya Creamer, Special Olympics Rhode Island’s manager of Unified Champion schools and youth engagement, said. “It’s showing that the relationship between playing sports together can be formed as young as the elementary level, and those relationships can serve children later.”

According to Creamer, Special Olympics first heard about Hoxsie and Park’s teams last month, and has supported both schools since. Both schools are part of the Unified Champion Schools program, according to Creamer.

The organization will be purchasing jerseys and adaptive physical education equipment for both teams, as well as a lowered basketball hoop for games.

So far, Hoxsie has had four practices, with their fifth scheduled for later today. Throughout them, McCoombs has taught the goals of Unified Basketball, the basics of dribbling, passing and shooting and the basics of defense, which in Unified Basketball, does not allow for steals.

“They’ve grown tremendously,” McCoombs said. “The kids are all doing great.”

McCoombs also praised his fifth-grade class, whom he said were an “amazing, supportive group” and have helped kickstart excitement within the school for the team.

Park held their first practice earlier this week, with Sylvestre saying that students did a great job of supporting each other.

“One thing everyone has in common is that there are certain things that are challenging for everybody,” Sylvestre said. “What they get out of this is a lifelong lesson of how to be resilient and persistent and how to be challenged while having fun in a variety of ways.”

A culture of respect

Excitement among students and families has led to McCoombs and Sylvestre moving their game from Hoxsie to Warwick Vets to accommodate a larger crowd.

“This is a great opportunity to show the city and the state that if you have unified basketball, or other unified sports, in your building, it shows that you have a culture in that building where everyone’s respected,” McCoombs said.

Creamer praised Warwick’s schools for their work in integrating special needs students with other students, also mentioning Norwood Elementary School as a positive example for other schools to follow.

“We’ve already got really strong, inclusive communities in Warwick,” Creamer said. “It’s great to watch it grow.”

A second game between the two schools is also in the works, as McCoombs said that they have been invited to have a game at halftime of the unified game between Warwick Vets and Winman later this year.

“They have a pretty well-developed program at that level, so they get to see the role models at the upper level and get to be the role models at their level,” Sylvestre said.

Next year, McCoombs hopes that there will be enough Unified Basketball teams for a mini-tournament, and is hoping to have a Warwick-wide league in the more distant future. Creamer said that schools with teams at the elementary level will remain intermural, meaning that they’ll only play other schools from the same city or town.

For now, though, McCoombs and Sylvestre said their goals are to support the sport and make sure that the students on the team end up remembering it as a positive experience.

“We’re looking forward to being the pioneers of Unified Basketball,” McCoombs said. “I’m incredibly proud of the students here.”

Hoxsie, Park, unified, basketball


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