Students Come First in Building an Inclusive Culture
–A Milford Perspective, Kevin McIntyre
An inclusive environment is so important for ensuring that all students are welcome and supported. Inclusion is a word that is bantered about a lot in education and can mean different things to different people. My view is that inclusion needs to be an important part of what we all do as educators. Inclusion is not an initiative or a program, rather it is an approach, a mindset, and a culture.
I want to talk about two ways that our schools have approached inclusion with students with special needs and English learners. At the high school I want to focus on the Best Buddies program and how it has positively impacted the overall school culture, and at our elementary schools I will highlight how our hiring practices and instructional delivery models are supporting inclusion for English learners.
The Best Buddies Program fosters and supports friendships between typically developing students and students with intellectual developmental disabilities. High school can be a socially challenging time for all students and Best Buddies helps to create a positive climate that is easily observable in the cafeteria, hallways, and programming. More than 200 students participate in the Best Buddies program at Milford High School where students attend monthly dances, events, and outings. Students build authentic relationships that often continue after graduation. Our Best Buddies Program at the high school not only benefits the students with special needs, but also significantly benefits their typically developing peers and the culture of the high school. This program complements Special Olympics and Unified Sports and provides a number of social opportunities, athletic experiences, and friendships. These experiences have changed the outlooks and trajectories for many of our students. This program has built a sense of true inclusion and all of our students look forward to the events throughout the year.
For the past several years approximately 40% of our entering kindergarten classes are English learners. Initially students received a great deal of their programming in pull out English language development classes. A large number of our students were being pulled out throughout the day and it was having a disruptive impact on their learning and social membership in their elementary classrooms. This has made us rethink how we provide services and inclusion for English Learners. One move we made was on the personnel side by only hiring dually-licensed EL and elementary teachers to provide more opportunities for English language development directly in the classroom. This also allowed us to develop some partner classes that allowed switch models where native speakers and English learners would learn and experience most subjects together. These models are continuing to develop and evolve, but we are seeing students experience more success with more of their EL services being provided directly in the classroom.
Access and equity go hand in hand with an inclusive culture. All students need to feel like they are an important and a valued part of the school community. As a school district and educators we continue to incorporate more inclusive practices into our schools and classrooms. These practices help us provide more welcoming, accepting, and supportive environments for all of our students.
Inclusive Cultures Demand Committed Leaders
–A Mendon-Upton Perspective, Maureen Cohen
“It is the principal who will ultimately make or break a school’s ability to be inclusive and to transcend from the rhetoric of inclusion to the reality of embracing the full range of students with and without disabilities as members of the general education learning and social community” (Causton and Theoharis, 2014, p. 2).
As Causton and Theorharis (2014) outline, establishing and sustaining an inclusive school culture demands strong leadership. Whether you are the superintendent of schools and trying to build an inclusive culture in your district, or a principal at the building level, true inclusion will not occur without your leadership. It takes strategic planning, a clearly articulated vision, and shared values to drive the decisions that build an inclusive culture. The following are some steps that a building or district leader should take to lead a shift towards increased inclusion.
1. Identify your Values about Inclusion
The first step in leading with inclusion in mind is to identify your core beliefs and values about what inclusion means to you as an educational leader. You will be tested in this process and these values will drive your decision-making moving forward. In thinking about your own values consider the following questions and what you would need in your school environment to make these beliefs take hold:
- Do you believe that every student can and will learn and succeed?
- Do you believe that each student has unique contributions to offer other learners?
- Do you believe that we are all enriched by diversity?
- Do you believe that students are best served in the least restrictive environment?
2. Setting an Inclusive Vision
The second step in leading with inclusion in mind is to expand those core beliefs, and to engage stakeholders in a visioning process for what your goals are for an inclusive school environment. This is your “stake in the ground” moment as a leadership team because your values and decisions will be challenged along the way. However, by having a well-communicated vision, your district will keep moving in the right direction for your students. In my district, this has been part of our five-year district strategic action planning process and has driven our decision-making ranging from new staffing and professional development to related service providers and scheduling decisions.
3. Examine your Current Structures and Staffing
Once a vision is established, the leadership team must examine current structures to identify whether it meets the goals for inclusion. In our district, we examined our service-delivery grids, I.E.P. processes, room locations, and personnel. In particular, we determined that we would develop co-teaching instructional teams of general educators and special educators. As a result there we identified a need to both reallocate staffing and bring in new staffing. We added a number of special education teachers over a few years to establish co-teaching teams across grade-levels.
4. Build Capacity in an “All Hands on Deck Model”
In addition to adding or reallocating staff, it is important to look at all of your staff to identify new configurations that create an environment where all hands are on deck to support all of our students. In the past, special education students were relegated to separate settings to only be supported by special education teachers, but through an inclusive model all students are our students. We must move our cultures away from “your students” or “my students” to a culture where they are all our students. In doing so, we look at all of our staff members including academic tutors and paraprofessionals to maximize our personnel resources and create an environment where we can reduce adult: student ratios and increase student support. For this to be effective, it requires a lot of capacity building and ongoing professional development in inclusive instructional practices. In our schools we have co-teaching mentors who train new co-teaching teams, as well as ongoing inclusion professional learning communities that meet monthly to share resources.
It takes time, strategy and effective leadership to create a systemic shift towards increased inclusion, co-teaching teams, and ongoing professional development for teachers and staff, but the social, behavioral, and academic gains have proven to be immediate as a result of this shift.
Building Inclusion Throughout the Community
–An Ashland Perspective, Paul Vieira
Love, Inclusion, and Trust
Last month we had Jamele Adams come to speak to our high school students and parents. He delivered a powerful keynote address centered around an acronym he created L.I.T. which stands for Love, Inclusion, and Trust. He is a believer, as am I, that when we come together we are truly limitless in what we can accomplish. In order to create an inclusive climate in our schools it is critical that we include our community in our discussions. During Jamele’s keynote, he highlighted the following:
-Love is at the core of everything we do and feel passionate about
-If we have love we do not want to see anything or anyone fail
-We want to nourish it and see it succeed
-If there is a challenge we will meet it and work through it
-Inclusion is what keeps us together
-It does not feel good to be left out
-We must remember to include everyone
-Trust is the byproduct when love and inclusion are present
-When you have trust you allow yourself to recognize that you are part of something much larger than yourself
-You feel valued and have a voice
-You are willing to sacrifice for the greater good
Regardless of our role in a District, we are all responsible for creating a LIT culture across our schools. Bus drivers, custodians, secretaries, cafeteria workers, para-professionals, teachers, and administrators all play a key part in creating this culture. As leaders we want our entire school community to feel included. That word “inclusion” is packed with meaning and some people may believe that it is overused and become somewhat of a cliche at this point. But I challenge you to think differently. At our core, we all want to be included and feel like we are a part of something. If that is true for us as adults, it is even truer for our kids. As we think about creating an inclusive culture in our schools, we must do so for ALL of our students, across ALL settings. It is our job and it is our responsibility. Our kids deserve it.
So, I ask each of you to create a L.I.T. culture in your schools. Love what you do and feel passionate about your beliefs and core values, include everyone all the time, no matter what, and have trust. With all three you are LIT and you can and will do great things! And remember that it does take a village.
Extending Inclusion into the Larger Community
–A Natick Perspective, Anna Nolin
Schools are strong purveyors of values in a community. That is why, in the discussion of inclusion, the schools are often looked to take the lead in difficult times. The past year has been a challenging one for our country in terms of various, much-publicized incidents that involve issues of social justice. As the media swirls during these moments, school systems and other community outlets have often been called upon to make formal statements of values to counter these incidents and make local sense of the news cycle. It is important that the the school values around social justice, inclusion, and equity are made clear through such statements in difficult times. However, while we communicate when we believe it will assist in understanding or reducing fear, schools need to recognize the need to share a wider overview of work and values in social justice and inclusive education to demonstrate to all community constituents–on a regular and ongoing basis–what inclusion means to education every day. Schools need to ask themselves if their messaging, curriculum decisions, hiring, and induction practices are steeped in inclusive values of the system.
- Can children hear inclusive messages in what they read? Study? In how they see themselves portrayed in media and texts?
- Do they have a voice to discuss their concerns?
- Can the community see your values in action beyond just being stated in your mission statement or on your district letterhead?
- Are your district school staff and principals collaborating with key constituents and groups in the community that inclusive practices can be observed?
Social justice education as part of the curriculum schools deliver every day and how leadership conducts its collaborative business plays a major role in sending a message about inclusive schools. The manner and method of teaching and involving the community in the teaching of humanities, civics, critical thinking, reading, and writing–and doing so in meaningful ways that resonate with our students–places inclusion at the heart of what we do: teaching and learning.
Giving staff, students and community members alike training from organizations like the Anti Defamation League, Facing History and Ourselves, Northeastern’s MVP program, Open Circle and Primary Source ensure educators PK-12 are trained in cultural competency and social justice themes and ideas so they can live the inclusion ethic in how they structure conversations with students, how they address themes of social justice and conflict in students’ daily lives, and how they choose materials for use in their classes.
Recently, during these difficult times in our education communities, two of us have begun partnerships with inter-faith clergy and community organizations to develop (Community of) United groups. These groups serve to create a mechanism for schools to collaborate with other key community groups to systematically carry forward the message of inclusion and equity across our towns. These are not small acts –joining together in this way takes the onus of responding off of any one cultural institution and aligns a community around inclusive core values.
“If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”