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Evening Out the Playing Field

East Haven High School's Unified Sports program -- for students with and without special needs -- sends the message that all students are created equal

The walls of Frank Parcesepe's office are cluttered with sports memorabilia and posters. He's been East Haven High's varsity baseball coach for seven years. But perhaps his most cherished role is coaching the school's Unified Sports team.

The team combines student athletes with special needs with their mainstream couterparts. Parcesepe, a high school special education teacher, runs the show.

Unified Sports evolved out of the Special Olympics. Participants play together in the same game -- in East Haven's case, it's soccer. The rules are fairly simple: Students with disabilities are the players who score and are the goal keepers.

On the field, these students are referred to as "athletes" and wear even-numbered jerseys, while students without disabilities are referred to as "partners" and wear odd-numbered jerseys. This distinction helps referees identify who's allowed to score. It is no different than any other varsity sport; students can earn both varsity letters and jackets, and compete in tournaments around the state. The team practices with conditioning and skill drills just like in any other sport. Parcesepe barks orders just like any other high school coach, although it seems his kids have much more fun.

"They get out of it the sense that everybody's the same, everybody has strengths and weaknesses." the coach said at a recent practice.

In its six-year history, Unified Sports has blossomed at East Haven High School, growing from an initial involvement of around 20 students into a small army of 40-plus. Assistant Coach Beth Paquette knows what draws so many kids to Unified Sports.

"I think it's the teamwork, overall sportsmanship and camaraderie that comes with playing with individuals that, maybe, they don't come into contact with on a daily basis," she said. "I think there's a lot of enthusiasm. I think there's a lot of desire to win, not only for themselves but for the entire team."

The social dynamics of high school can be challenging for all students. Groups of kids faction out into segregated crowds in the hallways. Often athletics is the same way, but on the field of Unified Sports students are offered the chance to come together.

Freddy Clough, a senior athlete with disabilities who has participated since his freshman year, said the sport helps spur others to see that people with disabilities are in essence the same as others.

"It's a real good thing. It's meant for everybody and it helps, it helps out a lot," said Clough.

Vincent Guglietti, a partner, has participated in Unified Sports for two years and also understands the sport's ability to bring people together.

"We bring kids together who have probably never met before but all share a common goal, which is to play a sport and enjoy doing what they're doing without being judged by anybody," he said. "It's a great atmosphere and I love doing it."

Marcella Ferrara, also a partner, agreed.

"It's different, a lot, 'cause everyone in high school is like 'Oh, popular kids that side.' Here, you're like family, we're all together" she said.

Coach Parcesepe patrolled the practice as students ran drills in the gym. The recent string of bad weather kept practices indoors. The students did not seem to care. They said "Coach P," as they call him, keeps the practices upbeat no matter the weather.

"If you come to the tournaments or the events, you're going to see that it's a lot of people running everywhere, the ball is going everywhere and everybody's smiling and having a blast and that's what matters," said Parcesepe. "They do keep score, but the scores don't matter. The dynamics of the game are as long as the kids are having fun and they understand the sport and they get the gist of the competition, then that's what it's all about."

Asked what he personally gets out of coaching the team, Parcesepe stumbled with his words.

"I can't even describe it," he said. "I get out of it the joy of watching them smile, watching them have fun, watching people that wouldn't be friends, be friends. Just the energy levels that they bring to me, they pump me up and it's fun to watch.

"Anything with the students, anything I can do to support the students or get the students more involved in extracurricular stuff, that's me. That's what I enjoy doing, that's my life and that's what it's all about."

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