Shooting stars


March madness was in full effect at Hermitage High School March 3. Panthers students and basketball fans, crammed together in the school's noisy gymnasium, rose to their feet with less than a minute remaining in a game against rival Freeman High.

With Hermitage clinging to a one-point lead, a Freeman player gathered a loose rebound and streaked the length of the court for a lay-up to put the Rebels back in front by one with less than 20 seconds remaining.

As the Panthers worked for a final shot, the crowd counted down each remaining second in unison.

"Seven. . . six. . . "

An attempted jump-shot fell unsuccessfully to the ground.

"Five. . . four. . . three. . . "

A Hermitage player rose the rebound, collected the ball and launched it toward the basket.

It fell safely through the net as time expired, giving the home team a thrilling 32-31 victory and prompting momentary delirium in the gymnasium, as students jumped up and down, some hugging each other and dancing in place, others storming the court to celebrate with the team.

That a high school basketball game might evoke such interest, passion and excitement among a school's student body is not remarkable; scenes like this one play themselves out across the nation thousands of times a year.

But that this game – played between two teams of exceptional education students as part of Henrico County's All-Star Basketball League – did so was, perhaps, an eye-opening reminder of the power of athletics, teamwork and inclusion.

'I made a basket'
David Kern admits that it can be difficult to keep the attention of his Deep Run High School students early in the week.

"On Monday and Tuesday," said Kern, who teaches students with disabilities, "it's hard to get anything done."

That's because his students know it's almost game time, and they're anxious to get on the court.

Kern and two fellow exceptional education teachers in Henrico (Freeman's Lourie Sledd and Tucker's Sallie Johnston) spearheaded the creation of the All-Star Basketball League four years ago as a way to provide an encouraging, fun outlet for their students, who suffer from mental or physical disabilities, and disabled students at other county high schools.

Henrico County had previously participated in the similar Medford League with other high schools in the region, but the trio believed their students would benefit from a less competitive league that placed more emphasis on participation than winning.

"We wanted it to be more child focused, where they get the feeling of, 'Wow, I made a basket,'" Sledd recalled. "We talked about it being just the spirit of. . . having fun, being with peers, being part of a group where they could compete in a sport in high school."

Participating Henrico schools include Deep Run, Freeman, Henrico, Hermitage, Highland Springs, Tucker and Varina; Hanover's Lee-Davis and Hanover High also are members of the league. Games are played weekly during the morning, and teachers often bring their classes to the gym to watch and cheer on their classmates.

Most teams wear the same basketball jerseys their school's boys' and girls' teams wear.

"For them to go to those schools where they see their peers playing sports, it's just huge," Sledd said of her students. "That's like the coolest thing ever."

Teams often give each player a nickname, and all players are introduced by name to the crowd before each game. Student and adult volunteers assist during games, serving as referees and helping players in wheelchairs or those with other physical ailments who need assistance getting up and down the court.

At Tucker High – described by Sledd and Kern as the model school for the league – students run the entire program. Home games are almost always packed with students cheering on both teams. Johnston admitted that she can't explain why mainstream students at Tucker embraced the program so quickly, but she's thrilled that they have.

"It brings out the best in all of them," she said.

Johnston enlisted the help of several varsity boys' basketball players four years ago to run drills with the All-Star team, and those players began bringing friends to assist. Now dozens of students are involved, serving as referees, coaches and on-court assistants.

"It's the most heartwarming thing I do in my work," Johnston said of her involvement with the league. "It's neat to see what students will do when you give them the chance."

'An honored group'
While the league has impacted the lives of students who play and those who assist with it, it's also had farther reaching impacts at the participating schools, according to those involved.

It "absolutely" has changed the way mainstream students interact with disabled students at Deep Run, Kern said.

"There's definitely more a sense of belonging," he said, describing how he has watched from afar as the two groups of students exchange hallway smiles and waves that are heartfelt.

"It's kind of cool to walk down the hall and not have a hand in interaction that's happening between our students and the general student population," Kern said. "It's genuine, natural interaction."

At Tucker, team members have experienced similar outcomes.

"It has certainly enlarged their social circles, and it's raised their confidence," Johnston said. "They're an honored group at Tucker."

Disabled students everywhere long to feel like they're part of something larger and that they fit into mainstream society with their peers, said Hermitage exceptional education teacher Karen Heldorfer, who oversees the Panthers' All-Star team.

"The recognition from their peers is what they crave," she said. "They want to feel like they're part of the school. It's something they look forward to, and it brings them a lot of joy. Our school embraces everyone – the stands are always filled with students there to support them."

The league has provided an opportunity for its players to grow on and off the court, as they learn to develop the type of skills they'll use after high school, too.

"A lot of these kids have played together for four years, they've learned teamwork, how to share the ball," Sledd said. "Some of them will get down to the basket and pass the ball, because they want their friend to get a basket. It's great to see how caring they are toward each other."

During play, students in wheelchairs sometimes shoot at a lower basket. It's not unusual for play to slow to allow for one student to attempt several shots in a row. Steals and blocks are not common, and scores are sometimes loosely kept so that the games are close throughout. Players develop self-confidence as they see what they're able to achieve on the court.

"My goal every year is, I want everybody on my team to make one shot," Kern said. "It means the world to them."

Said Sledd, "We've had kids who couldn’t cach a ball [initially], and in four years, they are running up and down the court. I've seen them grow and become athletes."

'When do we get to play?'
Following Hermitage's dramatic win earlier this month, players mobbed each other on the court, collapsing into a pile the way any team might in such a situation. Students were giddy with excitement, just as they would have been had their boys' or girls' basketball teams won in similar fashion.

Minutes later, when the celebration had died down and students had scattered toward their next classes, one Hermitage player emerged in the hallway outside the gym, a smile stuck wide on his face.

"We won," he said softly to no one in particular, as he peered back into the gym through the window on a door, seemingly wondering if the fantastic finish had been real. "We won!"

On that day, even for Freeman's players – some of whom were momentarily disappointed afterwards – the league was nothing but a winning experience, Sledd said.

"We've just seen the kids grow, from where they're really shy about it – afraid to get out there – to where they can't wait to get on the court," she said. "We've gotten a new student this week, and every day she's asking, 'When do we get to play basketball?'
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HCPS wins national honor for overhaul of Code of Student Conduct, supports


Henrico County Public Schools recently was recognized by the National School Boards Association for a sweeping overhaul of the school division’s approach to student supports. HCPS was one of five large U.S. school systems recognized with a first-place honor in the 2017 Magna Awards, presented Saturday in Denver at the organization’s annual conference. The awards recognize school divisions and leaders “for taking bold and innovative steps to improve the lives of students and their communities,” according to the group.

The award recognizes Henrico Schools’ efforts of the past several years, from re-examining its policies to implementing more support systems. After a two-year conversation with the community through public hearings and other feedback, HCPS adopted a revised Code of Student Conduct for the 2015-16 school year. > Read more.

Environmentalists say budget hurts efforts to protect bay

Environmental groups are outraged at the Trump administration’s proposed funding cuts for Chesapeake Bay cleanup programs.

President Donald Trump’s budget plan, released last week, reduces the budget for the federal Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent. That includes a $427 million in funding to address regional pollution, such as the Chesapeake Bay protection efforts. The proposed budget would eliminate funding for the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, which received $73 million from the federal government in 2016. > Read more.

Glen Allen ES principal receives REB Award


Melissa Halquist-Pruden, principal of Henrico County’s Glen Allen Elementary School, earned the 2016-17 REB Award for Distinguished Educational Leadership. The Community Foundation presents the award to four principals annually – one each from the school systems of Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover counties and one from the city of Richmond schools.

The award recognizes principals who go beyond the day-to-day demands of their jobs to create an exceptional educational environment. The award stresses management and communication skills, and the ability to inspire, encourage and advocate for the school. > Read more.

Grant to help Hermitage H.S. upgrade CTE program equipment


Governor Terry McAuliffe announced recently that Henrico County’s Hermitage H.S. will be among 16 high schools and technical centers statewide to receive a grant to upgrade equipment for career and technical education (CTE) programs.

The program gives priority to challenged schools, Governor's STEM Academies and Governor's Health Science Academies. Each school or center will receive $37,500 to purchase new equipment and make other necessary improvements. At Hermitage, the funds will be used for precision machining equipment. > Read more.

Virginia raises a toast to George Washington’s whiskey


George Washington is recognized as the father of our country, but with a bill signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Washington also will be recognized under another title – distiller of Virginia’s official liquor.

SB 1261, sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin of Alexandria, adds a “state spirit” to the list of the commonwealth’s official emblems and designations and crowns George Washington’s rye whiskey with the title.

The bill, which McAuliffe signed last week, highlights George Washington’s contributions to the culture of Virginia as “a native son of Virginia born on February 22, 1732, in Pope’s Creek”; “the first American president, commander of the Continental Army, and president of the Constitutional Convention”; and “a model statesman ... universally acknowledged as the father of our nation.” > Read more.
Community

Villa’s Flagler Housing wins national NAEH award


St. Joseph's Villa’s Flagler Housing & Homeless Services was one of three entities to earn the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Champion of Change Award. The awards were presented Nov. 17 during a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

NAEH annually recognizes proven programs and significant achievements in ending child and family homelessness.

Flagler completed its transition from an on-campus shelter to the community-based model of rapid rehousing in 2013, and it was one of the nation's first rapid re-housing service providers to be certified by NAEH. > Read more.

RIR’s Christmas tree lighting rescheduled for Dec. 12


Richmond International Raceway's 13th annual Community Christmas tree lighting has been rescheduled from Dec. 6 to Monday, Dec. 12, at 6:30 p.m., due to inclement weather expected on the original date.

Entertainment Dec. 12 will be provided by the Laburnum Elementary School choir and the Henrico High School Mighty Marching Warriors band. Tree decorations crafted by students from Laburnum Elementary School and L. Douglas Wilder Middle School will be on display. Hot chocolate and cookies will be supplied by the Henrico High School football boosters. > Read more.
Entertainment

Metro Diner to open second Henrico location


Metro Diner, a comfort food concept, will open its second Henrico location next month. The company is accepting job applications for its Libbie Place location at 5626 West Broad Street. The diner concept, known for its fried chicken and waffles, meatloaf, and shrimp and grits, will bring 100 new jobs to the region as it plans to open its doors in April.

The 3,500-square-foot diner located in the Libbie Place Shopping Center will seat more than 100 and serve classic comfort food staples with a twist, such as fried chicken and waffles topped with strawberry butter and a stuffed challah bread French toast with strawberry and blueberry compote. > Read more.

 

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Chabad of Virginia, 212 N. Gaskins Rd., will host Pac-Man Purim Arcade at 7:15 p.m. Start the evening with a Havdalah service, followed by the Megillah Reading at 7:30 p.m. There will be pinball, poker, darts, pool, air hockey, Pac-Man, board games and more, as well as music, snacks and a cash bar. For tweens and up. For details, call 740-2000 or visit http://www.chabadofva.org. Full text

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