Rethinking and Reimagining All Schools

Baseball field with corn in the background

How can we radically rethink and reimagine our schools to support all schools in effective inclusive equity-based education? In addition to the things we could observe at the SWIFT KDS schools (, effective inclusive schools work on creating inclusive systems behind the scenes.  For example, McLeskey and colleagues (2014) found an effective inclusive elementary school set rigid schedules, with set times to teach key content like reading when supports such as co-teachers would be available, rather than allowing teachers to set their own individual schedules in elementary schools.  In secondary schools, this approach involves special educators and administrators collaborating to build a master schedule that allows students with disabilities to take elective courses instead of only remedial academic courses, and scheduling courses at times when school staff can be available to provide in-class supports and engage in co-teaching and co-planning.

What else do effective inclusive schools do?  Think about the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” and its famous line – “If you build it, they will come.”  It is a fitting analogy for us in special education. In the film, Kevin Costner is compelled to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield, knowing that when he builds it, the players will come.  In our schools, we similarly build classrooms and structures and have students come to them.  We build self-contained classrooms, and fill them with students.  Or perhaps we build a discipline room and allow teachers to send students who are disruptive or difficult to teach to that room.  In the end, when we have a place to separate and segregate students, we use it.  So let’s not build special classes or schools.  Where we already have them, let’s empty them!  Imagine what it would be like to have truly no “special” schools, classes, or teachers, but an array of supports for all students (Kleinhammer-Trammel & Sailor, 2013).  Instead of pooling resources in separate settings, we can have drawers or bins containing modified scissors, manipulatives, and visual aids distributed in classrooms, with paraprofessionals and special education teachers traveling around schools working in general education classrooms and settings. So instead of “build it and they will come,” let’s take the opposite approach and NOT have a place to go other than the general setting.

Another suggestion is to pool our talents.  No one person is likely going to have all of the answers or all of the strategies.  But together we can achieve much more.  Setting aside non-negotiable times to collaborate and work together to problem solve is another effective strategy to promote inclusive schools.  This would ideally involve setting aside 60 minutes for common planning and collaborating, but it may involve using time in innovative ways, such as teachers scheduling “specials” (e.g., art) during the same time period so they can plan, or even designing an independent activity (e.g., watching a film) when staff might be able to quickly meet and plan on a regular basis.

Inclusive schools may also design curriculum and activities in a universal manner, with proactive lesson planning to accommodate the unique learning styles and strengths of all students.

Think of the vast personnel resources at the school as a potentially underutilized resource.

Let’s not assign one-to-one, or even “special education” paraprofessionals, and instead employ classroom paraprofessionals who can support teachers and all students. Let’s identify the skills, talents, and preferences of school personnel to see how they can help sustain and build inclusive practices.  Think of all the personnel who are part of this community—coaches, custodians, related services providers, librarians, office staff, teachers, parents, local businesses, and so on.  What are the unique skills, talents, and resources these people can offer to help build an inclusive community?  Equity-based inclusion makes all members of the school community involved in the inclusion efforts, building commitment and sustainability.

In addition to the people who populate our schools, let’s think of the classroom itself as a structure that can support inclusion.  Picture a classroom in your head. You are probably thinking of a traditional scene with rows of desks facing forward, and all desks and materials being more or less the same.  However, we don’t need our classrooms to look or feel this way.  We could turn those desks into table groups and facilitate the social and communication development of all students. We could even add some adjustable height desks to accommodate wheelchairs and students who learn better standing.

And, remember when I wrote about taking the contents of special education classrooms and distributing them across the whole school? That activity makes classrooms look and feel different.  A few years ago, I was in an inclusive middle school in Arizona where the teachers did just that—they emptied the self-contained room.  I was visiting a history class where a student was using therapy mats to do physical therapy exercises while the teacher lectured.  Other peers were also on the mats, stretching and listening.  As I visited different classrooms, I saw that some had yoga balls instead of chairs.  The slant boards and wedge cushions that once “belonged” to special education were in all classrooms, where anyone who needed could use them.  You can bet this was a change for teachers and students, but one that was quickly embraced as it helped all students pay attention and participate in a way never before possible.  It also reduced any stigma about using special equipment, which was now seen as highly coveted by all students.  So think of the vast array of resources we have tied up in classrooms like sensory rooms, speech therapy offices, and special education classrooms.  What would schools look and feel like if all kids could use them when they needed these resources?

In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with a scene from the “Wizard of Oz” (as a Kansas resident, it’s more or less required to regularly reference this movie!).  During the scene in the film when Dorothy misses her balloon flight home, she starts to cry, and is subsequently notified by Glinda that with those fancy ruby slippers, she had the power to return home the whole time; she just needed to discover it for herself. Let’s all remember we have similar ruby slippers. You are more powerful than you may think and certainly have the skills and resources to implement quality inclusive education.  Rather than clicking your heels, you just need to reimagine the supports, personnel, and materials you already have in new and inclusive manners!

– Jennifer Kurth

Photo of blog author.Jennifer is an Assistant Professor in the Special Education Department at the University of Kansas. Her research focuses on inclusive education for learners with low-incidence disabilities who have extensive and complex support needs.