The tutors in Meaghann Mulrow's special education class at Mountain View High School have learned firsthand about the challenges that special needs students encounter each day.

Not only do the junior and senior tutors help their special education peers with academics, they also partner with the students on the basketball court, relay track and at the bowling alley.

The tutors take part in the Special Olympic's unified program, which allows them to compete in the organization's seasonal sports, including basketball, bowling and track and field, as well as the state competition in Phoenix.

Although the concept of general education and special education students competing together in the Special Olympics is not new, the trend is slowly starting to take root in Tucson.

Other districts, such as the Tucson and Amphitheater Unified districts, have shown interest in adding unified sports, said Holly Thompson, area director for the Special Olympics.

The Marana Unified School District implemented the program at Marana High School during the 2012-2013 school year before expanding it to Mountain View this year, said Marianne Castellon, director of educational services for the district.

"Including the special education students with the general education students is important," Castellon said. "Special education students are students first. I don't look at them as being disabled."

The upperclassmen can sign up for a tutoring class, which gives them the option of participating in the Special Olympics.

The program is designed to allow the tutors to serve as peer role models, but the relationships have proven to be mutually beneficial.

"The teacher can tell you to do something, but they benefit a lot more from a peer showing them how to do it," Mulrow said.

The tutors offer encouraging words to the special education students in class and on the field. They receive just as much in return.

"It's really opened my eyes," said senior Jasmine Molinar, 17. "I don't judge people on how they appear very much anymore."

Molinar played basketball with the Special Olympics team, which took the court during halftime of a University of Arizona women's game earlier this year.

"Every time someone would make a shot, everyone would light up," she said. "They all encourage each other. It's really neat."

Seniors Curtis Lewis and Travis Patterson, both 18, traveled with the team to Phoenix April 25-27 for the state competition to take part in the track and field events.

The class, along with his experience in the Special Olympics, has inspired Patterson to pursue a career working with people who have special needs, he said.

Patterson was skeptical of the class at first, mainly because of the stereotypes associated with special education students.

"It's just how society makes them look, like they always need help. They're a lot more independent than you think," he said.

Ava Red, 18, served as an assistant coach for the basketball team. Red could not play because she was already a member of Mountain View's varsity team.

The senior, who competed in the Special Olympics long jump at the county competition, is not afraid to defend the students if someone makes fun of them.

"I really have a pet peeve against the word 'retarded'," she said. "If you guys could be in here and see these kids, you would never use it."

Contact reporter Jamar Younger at or 573-4242. On Twitter: @JamarYounger