Each May for the past five years, Fontana Teachers Association (FTA) member and Kaiser High School special educator Michael Giardina has coordinated “Splash and Dash,” a districtwide event that embraces disabilities and values student diversity.
Similar to the Special Olympics, Splash and Dash brings together all of Kaiser High’s students and educators, in addition to athletes from other schools, in an uplifting celebration. Its impact goes far beyond a single day to longer-term student relationships and achievement.
“Splash and Dash started at Kaiser as an event that adds the fun of water alongside educational components of living a healthy lifestyle,” says Giardina, known as Mr. G. “The event embraced the entire school community.”
This year, more than 250 participants with special needs — 20 classes from Fontana Unified School District’s seven high schools and transition programs (age 18-22) — competed in running and field events as well as water challenges, supported by more than 150 student volunteers and leadership groups from Kaiser High.
“The best of who we are was on display at Splash and Dash,” says Dinny (Diana) Rasmussen, an FTA member and Kaiser High counselor. “A regular education student struggling with depression ran joyfully alongside her friend with critical needs who could not contain her own happiness. A transgender youth helped his partners cross the finish line. A star athlete laughed uproariously as he struggled to keep up. Kindness won the day!”
“Administration support and teacher buy-in is key. Ideas such as Splash and Dash that become realities showcase educators’ investment in education.” —Michael Giardina, Fontana Teachers Association
Because of its size and scope, Splash and Dash has become one of the largest district special education events in California. And now Giardina and FTA are looking to expand it to other districts and chapters.
That makes sense to Leslye Mendoza-Lopez, a senior who volunteered for the day. “It was the best experience of my life,” she says. “Seeing how happy the teachers, peer tutors and staff made the students made me want to pursue a career as a special needs teacher. Splash and Dash is really something all schools should have because it motivates students and makes them feel proud of their accomplishments.”
Splash and Dash starts with the athletes’ welcome at Kaiser High. They are cheered as they step off their buses by the Kaiser student “Link Crew” — trained ambassadors who help direct and assist during the day’s events. The crew escorts them to the auditorium, where they eat breakfast and hear presentations on health and nutrition.
Athletes next participate in a parade, each group preceded by their school banner. The Kaiser High School marching band provides musical accompaniment as they cross the campus. Teachers open classroom doors and students cheer as athletes make their way to the stadium. At the opening ceremony, the school’s JROTC, drumline and cheerleaders perform before competition begins.
“I had so much fun,” says Autumn Gilmore, an 11th-grader in Giardina’s class. “Helping with the preschoolers, the water activities, and watching Mr. G get soaked were my favorite parts. I also enjoyed all the student volunteers that helped and made it such a special day.”
As regular education student volunteers have become more involved, Giardina has observed two substantial student benefits he did not foresee. First, removing barriers to interaction with special ed students has led student volunteers like Mendoza-Lopez to consider special education teaching as a career path.
Second, as regular education class mentors built friendships and increased interaction with special ed students, the latter’s verbal and auditory skills showed faster improvement.
Splash and Dash, in effect, has fostered a safe environment where stigma gives way to intellectual and emotional growth on both sides.
“It was a powerful realization to its original creators that a program built for students with special needs would create more lasting change to those who did not compete,” Rasmussen says. “By pulling down barriers that limit inclusion, all students in the district have benefited.”
For more information about Splash and Dash, contact Michael Giardina at GiarME@fusd.net.