Jackie high fives students at the Bemidji vs Menagha basketball game / Lainie Hiller Photography
Unified Champion Schools aims to make schools more inclusive for students with intellectual disabilities. The program is successfully implemented in over 260 schools throughout Minnesota, none of which would be possible without the teachers who lead the charge. One of these incredible educators is Jackie Stoffel, a teacher at Bemidji High School.
Jackie has been teaching at Bemidji High School for eight years and has been in the Bemidji School District for 12 years. About six years ago, Unified Sports sparked the Unified Champion Schools program in Bemidji. Now, the Bemidji School District participates in all sports offered in Northern Minnesota, including their newest addition, Unified Flag Football. Since then, the Bemidji School District has implemented activities in each Unified Champion Schools pillar: Unified Sports, Inclusive Student Leadership and Whole School Engagement.
Jackie has been a key player in the growth of Unified in Bemidji. Shannon Murray, Special Olympics Minnesota Schools Program Manager for Northern Minnesota said, “Jackie is a gifted, engaged, caring and deeply passionate educator. Through her leadership, students in Bemidji have been given the opportunity to flourish and grow into amazing young leaders of inclusion not just in their school, but everywhere they go.”
In the last few years, Jackie has helped student leadership grow immensely at Bemidji High School, as her students have participated in Unified Capitol Hill Day at both the state and national level. “The students have really taken a leadership role and advocated for Unified programming,” said Jackie, “They have worked to build a sustainability plan so we can keep Unified programming in the school after they graduate.” Jackie has found that this gives her students a sense of ownership in their program, and she has fostered their leadership and growth.
For many of Jackie’s students, Unified doesn’t end after graduation. Several of Bemidji High School’s Unified graduates have decided to study special education after experiencing Unified. “I think the program is helping us obtain some new teachers which is needed and so cool,” said Jackie.
While Unified is excelling at Bemidji High School, Jackie hopes to lead Unified growth in the community, specifically at the elementary and middle school level. “Elementary school students are naturally more inclusive,” Jackie said. However, when students enter middle school, this natural inclusion starts to fade. Jackie is working to combat this by hosting events such as a Unified Gala and Unified basketball games.
For example, on February 8, 2023, Bemidji High School hosted a home basketball game against Menagha High School. This was the first time Menagha had traveled to Bemidji for a Unified game—and it was a huge success. “The game was a blast and the stands were packed!” Jackie said, “People said it was the most packed they’ve seen the gym before. Events like this helps everyone come together and feel that inclusive programming.”
In April 2023, the Bemidji community will be involved again—this time as attendees at the first Unified Gala at Bemidji Sanford Center Ballroom. As Jackie and her Unified club were brainstorming ways to fundraise, they decided to put on a Unified Gala. Students will be emceeing the event and engaging with community members by hosting a games portion for attendees. “I think it’s better when people can see what the programming is like first-hand,” Jackie said. Leaders and businesses in the Bemidji community have stepped up as event sponsors, making the gala a huge success thanks to the hard work of Jackie, her students, parents on the Unified Gala Board and the partnership of local businesses.
For both of these events, Jackie has invested countless hours in coordinating, scheduling, brainstorming and more, and her work does not go unnoticed in the Bemidji community. She has shown the Bemidji community how Unified can impact students with and without intellectual disabilities.
For Jackie, Unified is a family matter as she gets to coach her favorite sport, basketball, alongside her husband. “We have morning practices and that is just a fun piece of the puzzle. It’s a lot of smiles and great energy. I love it,” Jackie said. In fact, one of Jackie’s favorite memories comes from her first Unified basketball game. “My husband and I always talk about a moment during our first Unified basketball game when one of our players took a shot and he made it, but he didn’t move,” Jackie remembered, “Everyone was cheering, and he was frozen in that moment!”
At the end of each term, Jackie asks her Unified students to write what Unified means to them. Students write about feeling included and seeing kindness radiating in their school. She agreed, “I feel like in the hallways and the lunchroom, there’s a lot more high-fives and smiles. My students talk about their friends and they are excited to be at school, and that helps with attendance, mental health and social health.” Jackie is at the center of this inclusive atmosphere at Bemidji High School.
Jackie’s leadership in Unified has changed Bemidji High School’s culture for the better and she encourages any school that hasn’t implemented Unified to, “Just try it. Once you’re in that environment it will take off on its own. The students will ask for more because they really enjoy it. You’re not losing anything by just trying it.”
Unified is thriving in Bemidji, but Jackie is continuously working to make Bemidji a more inclusive place for all. “Jackie is always striving for better even when her Unified program is one of the best in the state,” Shannon said, “She has touched so many lives in measurably meaningful ways in her career and I can’t wait to see what the future of Unified holds in Bemidji and Northern Minnesota. I know Jackie and her students will be right there at the heart of it.”
Jackie is a champion of inclusion. She is an advocate for Unified in Bemidji and beyond. We are so thankful to have Jackie a part of the Unified Champion Schools movement!