Full of pride, Hardin Valley Academy peer tutors Alee Hyatt (left) and Gracie Waite hug after the unveiling of the banner declaring HVA a National Unified Champion School.

By Steve Williams

No student is left out at Hardin Valley Academy.

That clearly could be seen, heard and felt at an exhibition basketball game before a packed gymnasium Wednesday morning, Nov. 10, prior to HVA being recognized as the state’s only National Unified Champion School.

The White defeated the Blue 31-29 in an exciting contest in which Special Ed athletes and Peer Tutors were players on the two teams that were coached by Peer Tutors.

The event also included a celebration for Hardin Valley’s three-time TSSAA Unified State Track and Field Champions, acknowledgment of its Unified Volleyball Team that will represent Team Tennessee at the Special Olympics USA Games in Florida next summer and Special Olympics Tennessee’s CEO presentation of the National Banner.

“We can give them a banner,” said Adam Germek, President and CEO for Special Olympics Tennessee. “But it is not about the banner, it is about seeing those students interact.

“Hardin Valley is the example we use in Tennessee for what school should be like.”

That reputation alone is a great honor for Hardin Valley Academy.

“One of the reasons that Hardin Valley Academy is a special place is due to the inclusive nature of our student body,” said principal Rob Speas. “We have a culture that chooses to include all of our students in the mainstream activities of HVA. Our peer mentoring program sets this example through tremendous student leadership.”

The student-athletes and peer tutors on the basketball court showed firsthand how inclusion can work in a school. And the students watching in the stands really got into it.

“They did!” said senior peer tutor Alee Hyatt after the event.

“Our school is our community and if we have everyone on board – everyone willing to be all in for inclusion – that’s what it’s all about.”

Hyatt was one of four peer tutors who addressed the crowd after the game and the unveiling of the banner.

“Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools is a program for Pre-K through university,” pointed out peer tutor Jacob Greene.

“At its core, this Unified strategy is about unifying all students – with and without disabilities – using sports as a catalyst for social inclusion and attitude and behavioral change,” he concluded.

Peer tutor Sam Miller said: “All of us face many challenges, from achieving personal and academic success to feeling emotionally and physically healthy and safe … Imagine how these challenges make it even tougher for some students who have an intellectual disability.

“In some schools across the country, people with disabilities are educated separately from peers without disabilities, or do not attend school at all.”

Peer tutor Gracie Waite concluded: “Test scores matter, college placement matters, academic achievement matters.  But when we think of our future, perhaps the thing that matters most is whether or not we will defeat exclusion and replace it with inclusion.”

Tim Lee has been a Special Education teacher at Hardin Valley since the school opened in 2008. He said there are 72 peer tutors at Hardin Valley this school year.

“We’ve probably had a total of a thousand peer tutors that have come through here in the past 14 years,” he estimated.

“We have different types of Special Ed teachers here,” added Lee. “I teach the kids with the more moderate to severe intellectual, physical disabilities and the peer tutoring program.”

Lee asked Jennifer Hayes to come with him to Hardin Valley from Fulton High when the school opened.

Hayes is the “coach” of the Hardin Valley Unified teams, which have approximately 70 partners and athletes that compete annually in Unified Sports competitions.

“I want to make this clear,” said Hayes, a CDC teaching assistant at HVA. “This was not an award to reward our athletes or Unified Sports. This was a school award Hardin Valley Academy was awarded for its foundation built on inclusion.

“We were awarded being a Unified Champion School in 2018. In 2019, we were awarded the status of being the National Unified Banner School.

“But before these standards and this Unified Champion program was ever announced by Special Olympics and became a national thing, we were already founded on these standards here at Hardin Valley. We were already meeting all of those qualifications.”

Sallee Reynolds, Hardin Valley Academy’s first principal and the Supervisor of Secondary Education for Knox County Schools since 2019, attended the event.



(Athletes and Peer Tutors)

Blue Team: #5 Maddox Stimson, #22 Jacob Greene, #32 Daniel Gooch, #3 Trey Bozeman, #12 Owen Garcia, #30 Nate Edmitson, #35 Kingston Shingles, #23 Julian McCoy. #4 Ethan Richards. #2 Jonathan Roman, #1 Zack Passafume. Coach – Ryan Nichol.

White Team: #5 Emily Brown, #12 Antonio DeJesus, #23 Nick Liakonis, #11 Gracie Waite,  #32 Seth Miller, #3 Matthew Vaughn, #13 Golda Fewell, #0 Gershona Fewell, #21 Gabriel Clark. #32 Jack Smith, #1 Jaylen Panntzli. Coach – Dale Henley.