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Association of Washington School Principals
Washington Principal | Volume 2– 2021-22
An Inclusion Journey
Get started and get better: advice from the field
Ashley Barker
AWSP Inclusion Director
Evaluation Criteria: Creating a Culture, Planning with Data, Aligning Curriculum, Improving Instruction, Managing Resources, Engaging Communities, Closing the Gap
“Inclusion is not a strategy to help people fit into the systems and structures which exist in our societies. It is about transforming those systems and structures to make [them] better for everyone. Inclusion is about creating a better world for everyone.” — Diane Richler, Inclusive Education Canada
AWSP has heard from many leaders over the years who share their hopes, dreams, fears, and frustrations. A common theme is school leaders want it all for the staff and students they serve. Simply put, they want a welcoming environment where each student belongs, feels valued, and is learning at high levels. However, many of us find ourselves engaged in mundane tasks as part of our daily work unrelated to our inclusion goals. This could leave even the most positive, effective, and hopeful leader disengaged, exasperated, and cynical about their influence. In a system with a lot of initiative noise, it’s easy for school leaders to become distracted, distressed, and disinterested leading to a “just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it” attitude.
At AWSP, we work with thousands of exceptional school leaders and have the benefit of hearing about all the outstanding work happening across the state. In this article, we would like to highlight practical inclusion strategies working in our schools. Our goal as an organization is to not make inclusion just another thing but the thing that creates a culture of belonging within our schools.
As the Inclusionary Practices Director for AWSP, I have the tremendous opportunity to dive into the world of inclusion as my daily work. It has afforded me the chance to play catch-up in all that Washington state and the country have been advocating for in the world of inclusion after being abroad for several years. I am struck by how much more educated in inclusionary practices current school leaders are and have to be, resulting in more they have to juggle in these more complex times.
Our goal as an organization is to not make inclusion just another thing but the thing that creates a culture of belonging within our schools.
Inclusion is one goal among many that may or may not be achieved due to competing issues and emergencies that arise in every school I visit. In the past month, I have had an opportunity to be “in the field.'' Inclusion in most schools often looks like rigorous coursework, intentional social opportunities, elective classes, and passing times where all students are included. Even with these practices in place, I know most school principals would agree, we have not achieved full inclusion yet.
To showcase the incredible work happening in schools, we are spotlighting Lakeside High School in Nine Mile Falls School district near Spokane. In talking with principal Brent Osborn, about the school’s inclusion practices, he noted that they have not only improved learning but ultimately changed the culture of the school. Much of what Brent and I discussed in our interview reminded me of the following quote by Arthur Jones: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” And it’s true; our systems will simply run the same unless we change them, which is exactly what Brent Osborn set out to do in his school.
First, Get Started When Brent transitioned to the principalship from the classroom, like many of us, he believed in school creating post-secondary opportunities for every child. He quickly realized that meant some students and not every child. Through his school leadership, he was charged with helping students have access or “the key to every door.” After one year, he quickly realized that some schoolwide systems “didn’t give every kid the key.”
Like many places, the success of a program or initiative has to do with hiring great people; this was the case when his inclusion process began. He hired an excellent special education teacher who grew up within his school district system and was driven to improve the process for every student. Then, he hired several teachers who shared the same beliefs as the special education teacher. Hiring a good team took time, but he didn’t give up and eventually completed his team with another staff member and exceptional life skills teacher. As a result, he was able to begin creating a genuinely inclusive environment. He utilized those teachers and put them in front of the staff to talk about successes whenever possible and dedicated time in staff meetings to highlight the inclusive work happening in both social studies and biology.
Get to Know Your Data Your Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) data should be just as accessible as your attendance, discipline, and achievement data. Knowing how many students you have at an LRE level 1, level 2, and level 3 (see chart below) based on your daily class schedule is an important next step in knowing how you serve your students. Understanding your student levels will assist you in gaining an understanding that with state funding changes, you receive more per pupil funding for students in level 1 to encourage schools to push for inclusion opportunities.
Understanding this information will empower you to begin the conversation with your staff and district leadership to identify your needs and create a sense of urgency in moving inclusion forward.
Brent provided a note of caution: Though you want to increase your inclusion opportunities, it is more important that your students are appropriately placed in classes. Student participation can vary from year to year depending on the level of need for each student. If you don’t know your LRE data specifically, utilize your special education department to begin an LRE discussion with your staff. The data will tell you where you need to start. For example, you may consider “pushing” staff into classrooms rather than pulling students out for services as a place to start. You may have never partnered with special services on teaching and learning work beyond placement and discipline decisions. If that is the case, establish lines of communication with your special education colleagues as partners in this work. Additionally, study your students' schedules, particularly in life skills classes, and ask, where are they currently being served in special education where they could access a general education setting?
Identify and Understand Your Current Reality When asked what is working well, Brent said you will notice the culture shift when you begin to put inclusion work at the forefront of everything you do. He describes a situation where a student, who is immobile without support, was accompanied by a student helper (one of the inclusion strategies employed in his school). Peer support of students has become the norm at his school, beginning with utilizing students in certain elective classes for peer support. Another situation he described was with a student who uses an iPad to communicate with the assistance of a peer in class. Usually this student would have been in a separate classroom aided by another adult. Now, he is easily included in the theater class with the support of a peer. Brent describes these peer interactions as paving the way for other students with IEPs or hidden disabilities to access the classroom more authentically.
What’s missing from the equation? Brent says he still has some teachers that are not comfortable teaching an inclusion student if there is a paraeducator in the class. In these cases, it is human nature to have the adults interact causing the student to miss valuable instruction directly from the teacher. Brent understands that these staff members need more support in understanding how to utilize inclusion practices to benefit their classroom environment.
The introduction of peer escorts in situations where students cannot be on their own and need the “next level of care” has been a game changer. Students at Lakeside utilize peers rather than support staff to work directly with each student, eliminating the need for the classroom teacher to work through another adult.
If I Knew Then What I Know Now About Inclusion Considerations for quick implementation based on lessons learned from Lakeside High:
1. Avoid labeling classes. Students should have the same class titles on their schedules as their peers whenever possible. If labels are used to create the class schedules, remove them after. 2. Know it’s not only about inclusion. Make sure your students are properly placed.
3. Gain time, as it is the only factor we can truly control. Students with disabilities need more time to achieve; therefore, think of ways you can increase academic time by providing more time with the teacher (co-taught classes and/or an academic lab model) versus a replacement special education class. It's true adding time can cut into elective classes but it will pay off in student achievement in the long run.
4. Highlight (or begin if you haven’t already) Unified Athletics in your school. Once you honor your students this way, you will change the inclusion culture.
5. Lean heavily on electives. Theater, art classes, physical education, and career and technical education are avenues to include students outside the special education classroom.
6. Build your team. Put your teacher leaders in front as the change-makers to garner support and seek assistance from your building and district special education teams to create sustainable change.
After looking closely at your LRE data and making some incremental changes toward your inclusion goals, Brent says the next step would be to increase the focus on professional learning for your staff; specifically, strategies to implement Universal Design for Learning. He would put his expert teachers in front of their colleagues to do the heavy lifting and share inclusion benefits and best practices to learn from one another. Again, Brent noted this endeavor is a team effort. Implementation directed by the principal without staff collaboration and support will fall flat. Therefore, provide targeted professional learning that is coordinated and planned incrementally over the school year and beyond.
Still Struggling to Get Started? Brent harkens back to some wise words a previous mentor had to say about the principalship: "Your building, your problem.” We all know that If anything happens, the building principal will get a call, so it is the principal's job to know what is happening within their building with all their students. We can’t rely solely on the district office, namely the special education department, to provide the best service for our students — it is up to us.
Consider starting with the “low-hanging fruit” that can easily become quick inclusion wins for your students. Brent described eliminating the resource math class offered after the team looked at the appropriate placement for the student. By placing the student into an existing algebra course, there was no longer a need for a separate special education class. Now that the school staff has their LRE data in mind, they are always working together to see how they can appropriately serve their students by moving those receiving level 2 service to level 1 and level 3 service to level 2 to increase inclusion opportunities. Additionally, their team looks closely at the student’s individual schedule and asks, how can a student getting life skills support be in theater, woodshop, and PE? A positive unintended consequence of increasing participation with students who experience high needs: it paves the way for other students with IEPs.
As school leaders, our work is never complete; it is a journey to improve opportunities for our students daily. We appreciate how schools like Lakeside and many others have gotten started on their inclusion journey to continue to make incremental changes that support inclusion.
The work highlighted here is not meant to be the exemplar but rather an example of where and how to begin and improve the inclusive culture in our schools. Rarely does an initiative touch almost all of the Principal Evaluation Criteria like inclusion. The breadth of inclusion work indicates its importance and complexity. Inclusion done well benefits the entire community.
Throughout our conversation, Brent cautioned me about taking on this project alone. He says it must be a team effort empowered by the principal. Simply put, the principal is the leader of the leaders in ensuring inclusionary systems are in place and utilized in all aspects of the school.
Don’t forget your partners at AWSP are here to lock arms with you to improve your inclusionary practices.