Cheers from jubilant bowlers and the familiar sound of bowling pins crashing filled Midway Lanes in Mandan one Saturday earlier this month.
Alex Burr, a senior at Bismarck High School, stood in a sea of students with a huge smile on her face.
"I almost got a spare!" she proclaimed to her partner, who helps her with bowling.
Burr and other students with intellectual disabilities have the opportunity to make new friends through an inclusive sports program offered at each of Bismarck's three public high schools. This is the first year of the program, which began with flag football in the fall, bowling in the winter and will proceed with track in the spring.
"Beyond the hallways, we didn't have many classes together, but here we get to chat and get to know people," said Evan Sayler, a senior at Century High School and bowling partner to Natalie Edwards, who also is a senior at his school.
Edwards played flag football in the fall, which she said was "a lot of fun." She has a disability, but said what she likes most about the program is that she feels included and that "everyone's the same."
"Yeah, here I like that there are no barriers, you know, at school you feel like there are barriers between different groups, but here I just feel like it's all on one level," he said.
Inclusive sports is an extension of the peer-to-peer program launched three years ago at Bismarck high schools, which partners students with disabilities with student-mentors.
"A small committee of athletic directors and teachers wanted to get this started, because oftentimes kids with disabilities don't get to participate in a varsity sport," said Sara Bohrer, a special education instructor at Century High School.
Students in inclusive sports have the opportunity to earn a varsity letter, which will be presented to them in the spring.
"We wanted (the program) to mimic the sports we currently offer at the school," said Ben Lervick, the activities director at Century. For example, flag football in the fall during the football season.
This past fall, students in inclusive sports wore their jerseys on Fridays along with the varsity teams, and they participated in pep rallies.
"We are able to get (students with disabilities and their partners) not only training together and playing together, but then I think it also does a great job of promoting friendship and understanding that I think is so huge not only in our district but in athletics, as well," said Dallas Hinderer, Wachter athletic director, who helped start the program.
Hinderer also has a fourth-grade son who has Down syndrome. Inclusive sports breaks stereotypes about people with disabilities and those who may think they can't participate in a sport, he said.
"My heart is in sports, but also in how can we incorporate sports in Bismarck Public Schools for everyone," Hinderer said. "It absolutely makes sense for me."
Sheyenne Schneider, a special education instructor at Bismarck High School, said, after the first flag football practice, a student who scored a touchdown later told her he didn't know he could play.
"It was really cool because it gave him that that confidence that, 'Hey, I can do that, too,'" she said.
Bowling started earlier this month. Every Tuesday and Saturday, students meet at Midway Lanes to practice. Nearly 100 students are signed up to bowl.
"The biggest thing is just encouraging them and getting them excited," said Marin Ehrmantraut, a senior at Legacy High School and coach for one of the teams.
Parents also come to watch the practices, creating a new opportunity for them to socialize. Pam Aadnes, a special education teacher at Legacy High School, told her that they never expected to see their son on a Legacy team.
"It's a big deal," Aadnes said.
BPS superintendent Tamara Uselman said she supports the program, which promotes compassion and understanding among students and their peers.
"Everybody benefits. This isn't just something done for kids with disabilities," Uselman said.
Lervick, the activities director at Century, said they would like to expand inclusive sports into other communities in the state so students will have the opportunity to compete with other schools.
The district is covering the coaches' salaries this year, but Lervick said they have to fundraise to cover the costs of equipment, facility rental for bowling and transportation. To donate to the program, visit BPS Foundation website, www.bpsfoundation.com.