Hundreds of students from across Williamsburg-James City County Schools came together at Jamestown High School Thursday afternoon for the 2019 Exceptional Games. Don’t let the name fool you — the event is just as much about celebrating what makes these students the same as what makes them exceptional.
Melissa Furr, an art teacher at Jamestown, helped organize the event with three former special education teachers a couple years ago after seeing the results of an art class she taught that included both general and special education students.
“We saw the need to create an event where our general education students and our special education students, who tend to self-segregate from each other, could build relationships with one another,” Furr said. “It started with the Exceptional Eagles Club, but after seeing the impact of the club, we soon had an idea for a division-wide event, which was how the Exceptional Games was born.”
Part field day, part festival, the Exceptional Games was launched in 2017 for all middle and high school students. The event was expanded last year to include elementary school students. This year’s Exceptional Games had students coming from almost every school in the district, with only D.J. Montague Elementary unable to attend because it was the same day as the school’s own field day event.
While events range from traditional sports such as soccer or track races, to games such as hula hooping, the focus has always been on the connections between students, especially between students in general education and special education.
“Socializing is hard for a lot of high school students, but especially for the special ed population, who already spends most of the school day separated from the rest of their peers,” Furr said. “This event gives them a chance to connect with other students in their age group, and for all the students to make friends and make connections with each other they might not have been able to do before.”
This year’s event involved more than 550 students from across the division, along with another 100 volunteers in attendance.
One group of four Jamestown students sat down to indulge in a few slices of pizza before the next event they were participating in. Two of them, sophomore Emma Howell and freshman Noah Katz, are general ed, while the other two, freshman Kyle Klarenbach and junior Darren Claremont, are special education. You’d never know it looking at the smiles and laughs — or listening to the debate over who got the last Fritos.
That is the magic of events like this — making possible bonds that weren’t possible before.
“It’s a lot of fun, like a dance party rolled into a track meet,” Howell said. “It’s a great way to meet new people and make new friends, because really, who couldn’t use more friends in high school?”
The Exceptional Games are also one of the few times the students get to see students from other grade levels all in one place.
“A lot of us were peer helpers in middle school, and it’s great to see where they are now and to check up on our old middle school teachers,” Katz said. “It’s fun for everybody. It's a good time be out here and that’s what we’re here for, to connect with people, both old and new.”
For Klarenbach, the Exceptional Games is often one of the best days of the school year.
“It’s fun to see the other schools out here, to have everyone get to know each other and have fun,” Klarenbach said. “It’s the way to end the school year right because everyone likes making friends and having fun.”
After getting involved with the Exceptional Games and the Exceptional Eagles Club, Klarenbach said he found something he enjoys doing with other students: running. He is part of the school’s running club.
“We get to see people we remember from other schools and have fun with friends from our school. I even get to run with them,” Klarenbach said.
Jamestown’s principal Howard E. Townsend IV said he’s proud of Furr and the other event organizers, but even prouder to see the kind of impact the Exceptional Games has had on students in the past three years.
“The games are a great opportunity to allow students an inclusive experience that highlights their strengths,” Townsend said. “I saw students dancing, singing, running and just being active this morning. Activities that bring students and the community closer to schools strengthens the relationships that lead to achievement.”
Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.