Anyone who has ever been picked last for a sports team, left off the drama cast list, or missed the marks to sign up for an AP class knows the sting of being excluded in school.
In so many ways, this is how our broader education system is designed: A select number of children are invited to participate in choice classes and extracurriculars, while others are not. The higher the grade, the more students are excluded. By the time many students enter high school, exclusion from a class, club, or team is a given.
Traditional thinking argues that exclusion is a fact of life — that you can’t always make the cut and the earlier kids learn this, the better. But some educators are beginning to question this exclusionary approach to school. The purpose of education, they argue, isn’t about competing for a grade, score, or prize. Instead, it’s to give every student equal access to all a school has to offer. So that by the time a student graduates, they will have the academic, emotional, and social scaffolding to build on in life and work.
Helping kids learn how to succeed in a diverse and ever-changing world is what school is all about. But how can they learn these lessons if they are separated from some of their peers or locked out of certain opportunities? “I want a community where all my students graduate and they contribute to the community and have jobs and they’re successful in their independence,” says Joyce Carr, Supervisor of Special Education at the Elmira City School District, which has been working for broader inclusivity at their schools. “And if we keep segregating groups in the schools but then expect them to be harmonious adults in our communities and respectful of each other, it’s just not going to work.”
“People are realizing that when you give kids access to general education content, curriculum, and peers, with the right support, all kids can achieve at really high levels,” Julie Causton, CEO of Inclusive Schooling, says. Not only that, advocates for inclusion argue that it benefits all students by exposing them to a wider range of ideas and experiences and helping them understand the value of diversity.
The evolution of an inclusive school
Originally, “inclusion” in schools referred to students with disabilities. (You might have also heard the term “mainstreaming.”) The idea is that students receiving special education services be given the chance to learn with their peers in general classrooms instead of being segregated in separate programs.
Now, some schools are taking inclusivity many steps further to ensure that no one is left out. Any student who wants to participate in a given class or extracurricular is welcome. A disability, learning difference, or a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation, or any kind of difference should never prevent a student from participating.
Experts say that universal inclusivity comes down to creating a culture where everyone not only has access to the same opportunities, but feels respected, valued, and encouraged to pursue them. When thinking about inclusive school cultures, says Karla Manning, CEO of The Equity Leadership Group, a consultancy firm that works with schools to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion goals for all students, it’s vital to think about the ways they “feel welcome in a school — the extent to which they feel appreciated, the extent to which they feel affirmed, the extent to which they feel heard and seen.”
Total inclusivity might mean that girls are not only included in the robotics club but actively encouraged to join. It can also mean that a child who struggles in science is still allowed to take AP chemistry but be supported to learn the material at their own pace (an educational practice called mastery-based learning). It can also mean that a child with a physical disability is included in a sports team. And if the school still wants their “all-star” team? Then they would create a second team for those students who simply want to play the sport. As always, the point of total inclusivity is to give kids the full learning experience.
Beyond mainstreaming in the classroom
When looking at learning differences or any kind of disability, inclusion can go far beyond “mainstreaming” and offering creative ways to support these students. For about six years, the educators at New York State’s Elmira City School District have been committed to doing just that, partnering with New York University’s Program for Inclusion and Neurodiversity Education.
“We’re really looking at everybody’s differences and not just special education, but how does everybody learn?” Carr says. “We really try to do things like choice boards, flex grouping, and flex seating. I can work alone or I can work in a pair or I can work with four people.”
Classes in Elmira City Schools are co-taught by a general education and special education teacher, who focuses on offering different ways of learning for students to choose from, known as differentiated instruction.
Causton, of Inclusive Schooling, offers the example of fourth grader Adam, who is on the autism spectrum. Adam struggles to sit still and listen during read-aloud time. Some teachers might decide to let Adam get up and walk around while his classmates continue to listen quietly.
But Causton says the more inclusive decision would be to give all of the students several options of how to listen, such as sitting at their desk, standing and taking graffiti-style notes on paper taped against the wall, listening from the floor under their desk, or taking notes upside down like Michaelangelo. “It’s really the presence of [students like] Adam that makes us rethink traditional schooling, because the bad news is, it wasn’t working for lots of kids in that classroom to begin with,” she says. Total inclusivity “forces us to rethink the lesson entirely, and the benefit is to make the lesson much more exciting and interesting for everyone.”
Since Elmira City Schools implemented its inclusion initiative, students with disabilities are being sent out of class less often, which means they’re losing less instruction time. Graduation rates are also slowly climbing, Carr says, and attendance has improved.
Diversity and equity as part of an inclusive education
At the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST), a network of charter middle and high schools, diversity and equity considerations influence teachers and staff to think about inclusivity in every decision they make. “Diversity is inviting me to the dance. Inclusion is asking me what music I like to listen to. And equity is creating a space for me to take part in it and get out and do my dance,” says Aaron Griffen, the schools’ vice president of diversity equity and inclusion.
Manning argues that schools aiming to be more inclusive must prioritize listening to students, parents, and staff through focus groups or town hall meetings. There should be a “transfer of power,” she says, to help members of the school community feel like they are part of making major decisions. And that means letting learners have more control over their education, both in what they’re learning and how.
“Oftentimes we don’t ask students, ‘What is it that you want to know? What is it that you want to learn?'” Manning says they make a point of doing just that, by asking students for their input and taking their ideas seriously.
At DSST, learners participate in weekly morning meetings where representatives of student groups, such as the LGBTQUIA Club, can address their classmates and bring up concerns or ideas. “The students have agency and the ability to request whoever the adult is who runs the morning meetings to say, ‘I would like to share some observations we’re making and ask my peers to improve,'” Griffen says.
Expanding inclusion outside the classroom
Learning doesn’t just happen inside the classroom, which is why it’s important for educators to think about inclusion in extracurricular activities, too. Causton, of Inclusive Schooling, says schools should start by looking at participation in opportunities like clubs and sports teams. If students with disabilities, students of color, or other marginalized kids are underrepresented, it’s time to examine why those learners aren’t participating and start removing obstacles.
“I think it just all goes back to your whole school environment and your educational community,” Carr says. “If you’re segregating them throughout the day, then they’re not going to feel comfortable being in a general education setting.”
Some districts, such as Washington State’s Central Valley School District, have instituted a no-cut policy for certain athletic teams, a practice that appears to be becoming more common at the middle school level. Other schools offer unified sports teams, a Special Olympics model that encourages inclusive teams made up of students with and without disabilities.
Some kids might be excluded from enrichment opportunities because of the cost, as schools often charge athletic or activity fees. That’s why DSST reduces that fee to $10 for any student receiving free and reduced lunch benefits, according to Griffen.
Coaches have also been trained to recognize signs of disabilities such as ADHD, dyslexia, and hearing loss, both to help screen students for services and to better provide accommodations on the playing field. Griffen says that’s a sign that a school is taking inclusivity seriously — when staff is making every decision through that lens. “We’re creating a sustainable, inclusive environment that is embedded in curriculum, that is embedded in process, that is embedded in programming,” Griffen says. “That becomes, ‘This is just what we do.'”
Challenges for leveling the playing field
Public schools with fully inclusive classrooms and enrichment opportunities aren’t common. For those schools trying to reimagine “the way they’ve always done it,” there are inevitable growing pains and even significant pushback, as with Hanover Park High School in New Jersey, which was heavily criticized for instituting a no-cut policy on its cheerleading team.
One system that’s proved difficult for some schools to move away from is “leveling” or “tracking.” This educational model groups learners into different levels or tracks, such as foundational, introductory, or honors, based on ability. When thinking about equity and inclusion, Manning says the practice is troubling because it uses standardized methods of “sorting” students rather than viewing them based on their potential.
When leveling is used, students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners are frequently underrepresented in higher-level courses. From Manning’s perspective, it would be difficult for a school using the model to be considered truly inclusive.. “It’s just one system or one structure that’s not inclusive of the different abilities and capabilities that a student has,” she says.
What you can do
- If you want to see more inclusivity at your child’s school, start by talking with the principal and PTA.
- Find out if your school has a community steering committee or focus group around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and consider volunteering your time.
- Stay up-to-date with your local school board, and think about attending meetings to advocate for more inclusive policies.
For administrators & educators:
- To learn more about creating an inclusive school culture and modifying curriculum to meet the needs of all learners, check out the book Inclusion in Action by Nicole Eredics.
- Consider undertaking an “audit” of practices and systems at your school to examine who might be excluded, and how. “You really have to look through the inclusive lens at every practice you do. And you have to ask yourself, am I marginalizing any population when I make this decision?” Carr says. “And it goes from something as simple as how information is sent home to parents, to how are we going to have kids dismissed?”
This article is part of our Transforming High School series, a collection of stories, videos, and podcasts exploring the practices that prepare students for success in college and beyond.