Special Olympics NJ Gives Financial Boost To Franklin Unified Sports Program; Esports Coming

Franklin High School Athletic Director Ken Margolin and Carolyn Marano, Director of Inclusive Education for Special Olympics NJ.

The township schools’ Unified Sports programs are set to be significantly expanded next school year, thanks to substantial “seed money” from Special Olympics NJ.

The non-profit, dedicated to providing sporting opportunities to children with disabilities, is investing between $50,000 and $100,000 in the district’s program. Plans are for that money to lead to teams at the high, middle and elementary school level, as well as the introduction of an activity that Franklin High School Athletic Director Ken Margolin said “is going to be huge.”

What is it? Esports. Gaming, to be specific.

Margolin is so all-in to the Esports idea that he’s talking about the high school one day hosting a state Unified Esports tournament.

Carolyn Marano, Special Olympics NJ’s Director of Inclusive Education, said the investment in Franklin’s program is the largest the organization has so far made.

“The idea is with (Margolin) and his staff’s help, to prove that you can do this anywhere,” she said.

“This is an initial investment to get them on their feet,” she said. “It’s a whole investment in what we hope to see what should work.”

“We are encouraging everybody to spend money like that, but not everybody is,” Marano said. “Franklin has taken advantage of everything we have to offer.”

Marano said Special Olympics NJ is in the second year of a 5-year partnership with Rowan University and the state Department of Education. She said the organization receives about $1.5 million a year through the agreement, far more than the $250,000 Special Olympics NJ is used to operating with.

Franklin High School currently fields Unified teams in cheer, bowling and track and field, with about 50 students participating. Margolin said he hopes to expand that next school year, both in the number of sports offered and in the number of kids in the program.

Margolin is also looking at bringing the Franklin Middle School campuses and the elementary schools – from Grade 3 up – into the district’s Unified program.

Next year at FHS, he said, he hopes to expand the current offerings to include basketball and soccer.

Margolin also hopes to introduce bowling in the Middle School campuses and reintroduce track and field, which was stopped during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“A big area for growth would be the elementary schools,” Margolin said. “There’s so much more we can do. We’re not doing much in Unified except for adaptive Physical Education.”

“I don’t understand why we can’t have elementary bowling, elementary track and field, elementary basketball,” he said.

But the big push, Margolin said, will be in Esports.

Special Olympics NJ has partnered with the Electronic Gaming Federation, and offers competition in an electronic game called Rocket League, which is basically soccer, but played with souped-up sports cars instead of people.

Margolin said he normally has some difficulty in finding coaches for the other Unified sports, but not so when he put the call out for volunteers for Esports.

“The first two days, we had 12 volunteers,” Margolin said. “So that really struck a chord with me, saying hey, we’re on to something with this gaming.”

Margolin said he was initially skeptical when he first started seeing emails about Unified Esports. He said he didn’t think that kids with severe disabilities would be able to participate.

“Then Carolyn sent out another email about this Rocket League, and I said let me take another look at it,” Margolin said. “I found out I was completely wrong. When they game, it puts them on a level playing field with typical progressing students. So once I heard that, and I heard they had some money to spend, I thought, why shouldn’t Franklin kids … benefit from what they have to offer?”

Margolin said he did some research into Esports, and now he “see(s) the writing on the wall.”

“There are currently Esport leagues across the country, there are colleges that have Esport teams, NCAAA certified, and they’re giving out four-year scholarships, full rides,” he said.

“One of the top gamers last year made $7 million competing,” Margolin said.

Margolin said he is taking a different tack in establishing the Esport program at Franklin High School than what was followed in the establishment of other sports.

“We don’t have an Esports team at Franklin High School, we have a Unified Esports team,” he said. “The only way you get involved in gaming at Franklin High School is if you join and go through the Unified Esports team.”

“I don’t want to differentiate; I want to be inclusive,” Margolin said. “That was very important to me.”

There will be scrimmages during the summer, Margolin said, which will give students at FHS and Franklin Middle School – they’ve already formed eight teams between them – some time to get the kinks out of the program before it officially launches in the Fall.

“We can be the test group for it, so that when we roll it out in the Fall, a lot of the kinks are out, and they can take the blueprints of what we went thorough,” he said.

Special Olympics NJ doesn’t make a direct contribution to the district. The FHS Booster Club buys the equipment that is needed, then is reimbursed by the organization, Margolin said.

Margolin said he wants the Unified Sports program to one day rival varsity sports in terms of sports offered and student participation.

“We are in the infancy in terms of the programs we are offering, and the number of kids getting involved,” he said.

The district will offer a four-day Unified Sports camp in July, Margolin said, as a way to get students and staff interested in teh program.

“We’re going to use it as a training orientation session for not only our kids, but for some of the faculty members who might be on the fence,” he said. “Once they see how gratifying it is to the kids, we’ll be able to hook them in.”

“This is like 1 percent of my day, but it’s the best 1 percent of my day,” Margolin said. “And I never thought I would be saying that.”

The district administration is fully behind the project, schools Superintendent John Ravally said.

“I think it’s the neatest thing,” Ravally said. “It is, for lack of a better term, all the rage. ESPN even covers an Egaming league.”

“It’s really become a big deal,” he said. “Our staff, our students, everybody is really excited about it.”

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