Establishing inclusive schools has to begin with this question: How do we establish an authentic sense of belonging?

 

We see inclusion and belonging as essential conditions for educating each child. At some schools, implementing an inclusive philosophy meant no self-contained special education classrooms, no resource room pullout programs, no kids sent to other schools. Nothing separate, no special spaces, no special teachers. 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 permeates all aspects of a school — after-school programs, reading interventions, the physical arrangement of classrooms and dramatic changes on the playground.

 

These schools share a common mission: to educate students together – to work toward establishing a sense of belonging.

 

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. Inclusive schools are places where all students belong, regardless of ability, race, language and income. Students 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.

 

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. 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.

 

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. We at Inclusive Schooling work to offer resources and support for leadership, teachers, paraprofessionals, and advocates wishing to establish inclusion in their districts.

 

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