A publicly-funded partnership involving the UW College of Education furthers inclusionary practices in Washington schools statewide
"It was clear how much a space for her child mattered," says Cathi Davis, principal of Ruby Bridges Elementary in the Northshore School District. "Her whole demeanor changed when she realized that her child belongs here."
Ruby Bridges Elementary is one of 16 model Inclusionary Practices Project (IPP) demonstration sites. Funded by the Washington State Legislature in 2019, the $25-million, two-year IPP initiative supports inclusionary practices for public school students with various disabilities in general education classrooms. The UW Haring Center for Inclusive Education provides professional development support and oversees the project's demonstration sites in partnership with the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
"The Haring Center has been around for over 50 years," says Professor Ilene Schwartz. "The magic of our work is the interplay between research, training and practice. We have professionals that do all three, topflight researchers funded by federal agencies to do research on the best ways to educate students with disabilities, people doing professional development in school districts, people providing direct education to children and their families, sometimes the same person doing all three. We're not just worried about the intervention, but also how it will be implemented."
A pilot project led by Haring Center Project Director Cassie Martin in the Highline School District's McMicken Elementary in 2016 led to funding for the IPP. The aim was to create an inclusive learning community, a site for research, and a model for best practices in inclusive education. The site attracted staff from more than 30 schools to visit and learn. Eventually, state administrators saw it, and the funding and vision for a statewide effort began to take shape.
A Responsive Approach
After the IPP got approved, Martin drove all over Washington to identify exemplar schools in various stages of their inclusive education journeys. She and her team then selected 16 model sites representing all of the state's nine Education Service Regions. Eventually, the project added more than 150 pilot sites that the Haring Center could study and support as these sites learned from the demonstration locations. In addition to partnering with the pilot sites, the Haring Center also supports any schools interested in increasing their inclusion capacity.
While most of the demonstration sites existed before the project began, Ruby Bridges Elementary did not. As the school was being built and about a year before it planned to open to students, newly hired principal Cathi Davis began to work with Martin and the Haring Center. The task: to create a model IPP school from the ground up, founded with inclusion at the center.
"We wanted to disrupt the idea that it's the job of the student to get ready, or that they have to be qualified to access the educational environment," says Davis. "We wanted to create a space where the environment is ready for the student, where everyone's in. We brought this mindset to the community, when talking with parents about their hopes and dreams and with staff interested in applying. We’re asking what strategies provide our students the most opportunity to experience belonging and dignity and how do we surmount those that don't? This involves the structures, community, mission, vision and values to try to live that out in our process and provide support to other schools on the journey."
Part of the inclusive process included the community naming the school. The chosen name honors Ruby Bridges, civil rights activist and the first child to attend an all-white school following the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling. While the school’s in-person opening was postponed due to COVID-19, near the end of April 2021, it was time to welcome kids back. Davis finally saw the initial reactions to their careful planning, especially for a child who had always experienced school in a separate special education classroom (by design, separate classrooms do not exist at the new Ruby Bridges Elementary).
"That's his spot," the child's mother said as she brought him over and showed him his desk. Then she snapped a picture to send to his grandparent who lives outside of the United States.
Increasing Opportunities, Improving Outcomes
Research consistently shows that students with disabilities do better in school when they have the same access to academic and social opportunities as their peers. Still, in 2018, Washington was 45th in state rankings on inclusion. This number equated to 56% of students with disabilities participating in general education during most of the school day. Seeking to address that disparity, the IPP set a target to increase the number of participating students to 60% by 2021.
By the end of the two years, the IPP had exceeded its target, changing the experience of 5,000 students with disabilities to the highest level of inclusion, a 5.5% increase. Since then, OSPI has requested and received an additional $13 million from the legislature for the next two years for ongoing K-12 grant money and professional development to continue this critical work.
What makes this project so effective, and how are the partners planning for more future success? "It involves a lot of different facets," says Martin. "We have ten inclusion specialists, a variety of people with different backgrounds and experience, doctoral students, learning about schools across Washington, looking at district-wide structures and systems and building coalitions.“
One of the collaborators helping to engage culturally and linguistically diverse families and communities is Open Doors for Multicultural Families (ODMF) . With a longtime relationship between the Haring Center and ODMF, the community-based organization’s Assistant Director Joy Sebe, Martin and her team collaborate with consultant Dr. Sharon Knight of DSK, Culturally Responsive Educational Services, to offer professional development for the demonstration and pilot sites focused on educational equity and social justice.
If we look at the outcomes for our students regardless of where they are coming from, students of color, those living with disabilities, those living in poverty, the educational system needs to shift to be universally designed to include students coming from all these diverse backgrounds.
For Sebe, the issue hits close to home. "I have two students who receive special education services. I came into this work after going to many different schools and realizing it's not just a school problem or one educator. It's a systemic issue. For us to create school environments that honor diversity of every student, culture, gender identity, we all need to come together to work on this. It's about being humane and celebrating our diversity," she says. "If we look at the outcomes for our students regardless of where they are coming from, students of color, those living with disabilities, those living in poverty, the educational system needs to shift to be universally designed to include students coming from all these diverse backgrounds."
"We have to be thinking about how we include children and families as authentic partners," says Schwartz. "To create inclusive communities, we need to help schools develop strategies to engage with families as authentic partners, to change behaviors based on what families are saying. After the pandemic we can no longer say 'we've always done it this way.' We've proven that we can find many new ways forward."
What Sebe appreciates most about the process of working with Martin and others at the Haring Center is their responsiveness. "They come with a real understanding of practice and partnership. If we say something is important to us, instead of being resistant, they are receptive and go back to their teams and put it into place. And it's not just compartmentalized to this project. It's a holistic approach to continually improving the way they work. That continues to strengthen our trust and relationships with one another."
Changing Culture versus Checking Off Boxes
In this moment of disruption from both a pandemic and a broader awakening to inequality and injustice, the UW recognizes the importance of the IPP in this larger context and the need to both lead and follow.
"While more visible during COVID, these barriers have been here all along," says Schwartz. "People may think of this as solely special education work, but it improves outcomes for everyone, and the responsibility falls to everyone to change structures, policy, and beliefs.
"We're looking at how to involve everyone in the school room," says Martin. "What it takes to impact change, building capacity and sustainability and then having the ability to step back and have lasting impact. Our stakeholders include family members, community organizations, students, general education and special education teachers, office staff, bus drivers and more."
"If we're not talking, listening and getting to know each other, it's just a series of tasks in a workplan," says Sebe. "If we get lost in the task, we lose sight of the importance of the relationships necessary to shift the mindset."
While the IPP focuses on replication and spread, there is nothing cookie-cutter about the approach. Through storytelling and having access to demonstration sites at very different stages in their development, schools can apply the most relevant learnings to their journeys. And as the UW Haring Center identifies patterns and practical approaches and even offers support to the sites directly, the informal and formal networking happening between sites and between educators, families and district administrators gives the effort the momentum it needs to evolve beyond a single partner or project.
That’s the kind of staying power that this critical work needs. "When Ruby Bridges talked to our staff and surprised our students on our first-day assembly," says Davis, "she told us, 'You are going to have to make this happen. People are going to say you need to be separate, but you don't."
Charleen Wilcox, Director for Marketing & Communications, College of Education, firstname.lastname@example.org