Creating Inclusive Schools For All Students

An education for children with disabilities that, as one principal puts it, offers ‘nothing separate, no special spaces, no special teachers’ by Julie Causton-Theoharis and George Theoharis

How do we create an inclusive school for all students? How do we establish an authentic sense of belonging? What is improving learning all about?

Here’s how George Theoharis, former principal at Falk Elementary School in Madison, Wis., described his school’s shift as it sought to answer the above questions.

“It was all about Celia. She went from spending all day in a self-contained room for kindergarten to spending her whole day with her [general education] 1st-grade class. She went from looking sad and limp in her wheelchair to looking animated and participating in everything that was going on.

“It was all about Jamal. Last year, he had to be escorted out of the school by the police. He spent 2nd grade isolated because of ‘violent behavior issues.’ Now he spends all day, every day, in the classroom without significant behavioral incidents and he passed the 3rd-grade state test.

“It was also all about Maria. Initially, she was removed from her class for ESL instruction. Her teacher said she was reserved, had difficulty transitioning and was always behind in completing work. Now she spends her entire day in the 5th-grade classroom; she is a vocal member in class, proficient on the 5th-grade state test, and was a runner-up in the school spelling bee.”

Nothing Special
Nationwide, schools and districts from Concord, N.H., to Whittier, Calif., and from Cambridge, Mass., to Charlotte, N.C., are undertaking inclusive school reform with positive results. Schools become inclusive for various reasons — the legislative mandate of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, pressures to meet adequate yearly progress, advocacy from families and the vision of school leaders. We see inclusion and belonging as essential conditions for educating each child.

At Falk Elementary, implementing an inclusive philosophy meant no self-contained special education classrooms, no resource room pullout programs, no kids sent to other schools. The principal’s commitment to eliminating pullout programs and separate instruction was simply: “Nothing separate, no special spaces, no special teachers.”

Theoharis added, “All kids, and I mean all kids — kids with significant disabilities, kids with autism, kids with serious behavior issues, kids with learning disabilities, kids in wheelchairs, kids who were high flyers, kids who were learning English — each and every child needed to be an essential member of the classroom and school community.”

General education teachers and specialists (special education, English as a second language, reading, etc.) had to co-plan and co-teach. The same staff was used, just arranged differently, meaning no additional funds were used. This deeply held commitment to inclusion permeated all aspects of the school — after-school programs, reading interventions, the physical arrangement of classrooms and dramatic changes on the playground.

The Only Way To Fly, Inclusively by Carl D. Roberts and Carolyn Teigland

Five years ago, the Cecil County Public Schools in Maryland embarked on an aggressive schedule to fully include all students with special needs in the regular education setting to be consistent with the most recent interpretation of “least restrictive environment.”

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“This was not a program,” Theoharis said. “This was a way to understand and view everything in our school. It wasn’t easy; it was a constant struggle and we were never perfect, not at all … but we have seen serious achievement gains as a result of these changes.”

He admits his school was not utopia. None of the other school systems mentioned above have perfect schools or perfect inclusion, but they do share a common mission — to educate students together. Because of this commitment, the Falk school realized substantial achievement gains by bringing students with disabilities and others who commonly receive intervention services to the center of the discussion about school reform and to the center of the general education classroom.

Nonetheless, critiques of inclusion are common. We hear tales of unsupported classroom teachers or students floundering in mainstream education. Some will claim, “We tried it and it didn’t work.” These are not critiques about inclusion at all. They are instead critiques of poor mainstreaming, of partial efforts at bringing students into the general education classroom and leaving the school’s structures, norms and policies unchanged.

Having inclusion classrooms or inclusive students does mean some students on the surface are included, but as a whole the school is not truly inclusive. An overloaded classroom with high numbers of students with disabilities densely “clustered” with other students is not inclusion. These arrangements create special education islands within general education classrooms and are difficult to manage.

District policies and procedures in Madison, Wis., led by Jack Jorgensen, director of student services, paved the way in many regards for moving beyond these outdated notions of “inclusive” classrooms toward creating genuinely inclusive schools and an increasingly inclusive school district. In Madison, district policy states that all students should attend the schools they would attend regardless of disability, all students should be placed in general education classrooms with attention to natural proportions and special education teachers are no longer slotted to teach students with a particular disability label, but all special education teachers serve students across the entire range of disabilities.

A Way of Thinking
Inclusion is built on the premise that all students should be valued for their unique abilities and included as essential members of a school community. Inclusion is not a place; it is a way of thinking. Moving some students from special education settings to general education settings is merely a first step to ensuring supported and successful inclusion for all.

Norman Kunc, a contributor to the 1992 book Restructuring for Caring & Effective Education, defines inclusion as the valuing of diversity within the human community: “When inclusive education is fully embraced, we abandon the idea that children have to become ‘normal’ in order to contribute to the world. …We begin to look beyond typical ways of becoming valued members of the community, and in doing so, begin to realize the achievable goal of providing all children with an authentic sense of belonging.”

Inclusive schools are places where students, regardless of ability, race, language and income, are integral members of classrooms, feel a connection to their peers, have access to rigorous and meaningful general education curricula and receive collaborative support to succeed. In inclusive schools, students do not have to leave to learn. Rather, services and supports are brought directly to them. A compelling body of research documents that students with and without disabilities, as well as students who are learning English, benefit both socially and academically from inclusive services.

Federal law ensures “to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities … are educated with children who are not disabled” (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). Further, federal courts routinely support inclusive over segregated placements and establish the notion that special education services are portable. A relatively early court case (Roncker v. Walter, 1983) determined, “The court should determine whether the services … could be feasibly provided in a nonsegregated setting (i.e., regular class). If they can, the placement in the segregated school would be inappropriate under the act (IDEA).” Individual court cases and class action lawsuits further determine the legal presumption of placement in a general education class with peers without disabilities.

No Exceptions
When thinking about inclusion, people often ask, “What about Jamie?” They immediately think of the student whom they believe to be the exception, someone who cannot be included because of the significance of his or her academic, or more often behavioral, needs. But we mean Jamie, too.

We must thoughtfully consider the classroom teacher and what supports will be needed for success in the general education setting. For example, Jamie might need sensory supports in the classroom, a communication system in place, a modified curriculum and/or peer supports. Although a continuum of placements may need to be made available, more restrictive placements often are made as a lasting decision and students are permanently excluded.

Instead, we see every child as a permanent member of a general education classroom and a more restrictive setting is used only if and when a student needs short-term support (i.e., a temporary crisis, or medical need). Further, this setting is available to any student who needs temporary extra support, not only those with disabilities. At Falk Elementary School and others, even students with the most significant disabilities, who would often be placed in self-contained classrooms and schools elsewhere, are flourishing in general education settings.

Salem Hyde Elementary School, in the Syracuse, N.Y., City School District, made the shift toward a schoolwide philosophy of inclusion. Salem Hyde previously concentrated or overloaded intense needs of students with disabilities into certain classrooms. These rooms were called inclusive classrooms. Other classrooms still had a range of learner needs but lacked special education support. Many students across the school were removed from their classrooms for portions of the day to receive pullout special education services. Additionally, there were two self-contained special education rooms where multi-aged students with disabilities spent their entire day removed from their general education peers and curriculum.

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One of the primary ways schools are addressing the need for accountability and individualization is through a technique known as co-teaching.

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Many school districts today offer a similar model of service delivery among schools that attempt to do inclusion without initiating the needed deep and systemic change to fully embrace an inclusive philosophy.

After restructuring service delivery, Salem Hyde no longer operates resource rooms or self-contained classrooms. All special education teachers are paired with two general education classrooms and a teaching assistant to jointly plan and deliver instruction to the full range of learners. All learners are placed into general education classrooms in natural proportions — students with special education needs are not concentrated in certain classrooms.

A Human Response
Moving all students into general education is the first step toward inclusion. The next step is helping them feel they belong. Humans need to have a sense of belonging. People who feel they do not belong often shut down, become quiet, get angry or become unavailable for learning.

As educators, we understand this human response to belonging, yet schools often create separate spaces and systems that all but ensure students will feel disconnected. For example, classrooms are set aside specifically for students with labels such as autism, learning disabilities or behavior challenges. Time-out spaces are demarcated, and separate programs are created for students learning functional skills. These separate spaces are created with little thought to how it might feel to attend a class for others with behavior problems or to be denied access to general education. Small wonder that students with disabilities who are in segregated settings continue to have the lowest performance rates and among the highest dropout rates.

Conversely, when people feel a sense of belonging they are more motivated, engaged, attentive, participatory and more likely to take risks and learn. Research establishes a strong connection between belonging and how well students feel and perform in school.

At Falk Elementary School, the staff used the community-building program called Tribes. All teachers received training and built community purposefully each day through morning meetings, positive behavior management systems, appreciations and group problem solving. A sense of belonging pervaded the very fabric of the school, encompassing scheduling, community-building activities, the playground, relations among students, school climate and staff organization.

All Achieving
Given the current push for academic accountability, we must consider whether implementing inclusion will improve achievement. Theoharis, principal of the 500-student school, documented how student learning improved after policies, procedures, curricula and instruction were shifted to support all learners. On the state reading test, Falk went from testing 78 percent of its students to testing 98 percent.

Even with testing almost every student (including students with disabilities and English language learners), the percentage of students achieving at proficient or advanced levels rose from 50 percent before their restructuring to 86 percent three years later. The Falk school saw significant gains in reading among all subgroups: African-American students improved from 33 percent achieving proficient or advanced to 78 percent; Asian students, 47 percent to 100 percent; Hispanic students, 18 percent to 100 percent; students in special education, 13 percent to 60 percent; ELL students, 17 percent to 100 percent; and students receiving free/reduced-price lunch, 40 percent to 78 percent.

Yet many schools and districts do not make adequate yearly progress because they fail to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Teaching the same curriculum in the same way has not worked. Likewise, grouping students by ability under the guise of individualized instruction has not worked.

But We Already Do Inclusion, Don’t We?

Many administrators and teachers believe they already are doing inclusion. However, if you look closely at the national statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, more than one million students are denied access to the general education curriculum and instruction, and many more have access in name only.

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Inclusion in general education and attention to belonging are the first steps toward greater achievement for all students. But this must be followed by improving the core teaching and curriculum to enhance learning of all students through differentiation, and teaching to multiple modalities and learning preferences.

For these changes to occur, teachers must release some of their traditional roles.This means that general educators must understand that the curriculum is not theirs alone to dictate. Similarly, special educators must abandon the feeling that “these students won’t make it without me.” Both groups of teachers require shared knowledge and skills about students and the curriculum, as well as time to collaborate.

Schools must transcend the myth that special educators have “magic dust” that enables them to work effectively with students with disabilities. Both general and special education teachers must adopt new roles and participate in common professional development. When adopting a new math curriculum, for example, both groups should experience the same training. These new roles require general and special educators to co-plan and co-teach the curriculum.

Committed Leadership
To create more inclusive schools, school leaders are the most critical factor. First, leadership is always key to meaningful and lasting reform. To become an inclusive district, the superintendent and administrative team must articulate a vision and a commitment to the philosophy and practice of inclusive education for all.

Students with the most significant disabilities must be moved to the center of the conversation and to the center of the general education classroom. One place to start is by engaging in open, honest and reflective conversations about the current state of inclusion (see related story, page 30). Another essential step is to develop an inclusive student placement process.

Second, general class membership cannot be an option afforded only to those who are deemed “ready” or “well-behaved.” Instead, inclusive schools are committed to the idea that student membership is not contingent upon readiness or behavior, but instead membership is a given and fully supported so all students will be prepared to participate in an inclusive society.

Third, if you build it, they will come. School leaders must stop funding and creating separate spaces for students — time-out rooms or alternative programs because once created these spaces will be used to separate students who are seen as different — with a disproportional negative impact on students from marginalized groups. These resources should instead be put into building strong general education classrooms, where teacher capacity is high and support is seamlessly provided to any student who needs it.

Finally, school leaders must provide explicit training to teachers and staff to build their capacity to support all kids in inclusive settings, to differentiate instruction and to collaborate. They then must provide leadership and support when difficulties arise.

These efforts are challenging, but any school reform effort worth doing is difficult. Support must be provided at every turn, so students like Celia, Jamal, Maria and Jamie have full access to the general education curriculum to reach their full academic and social potential. We cannot be satisfied with schools that work for only some. Ultimately, creating schools for all means including all students, developing an authentic sense of belonging for all students and creating general education settings that maximize learning for all students.

Julie Causton-Theoharis is an assistant professor in the department of teaching and leadership at Syracuse University. E-mail: jcauston@syr.edu. George Theoharis is an assistant professor in the same department.