Image of rainbow.

Rainbow Connection

Educators often wonder how well they can provide appropriate educational services to all students. Can it be that sometimes students’ needs are too intensive and it becomes an undue burden for schools to provide reasonable accommodations? There’s always a lot of fear. Albeit challenging, it is possible when a creative parent and a passionate student connect with a willing teacher to work toward inclusion.

Allow me to introduce you to Magger Chen, a talented young lady from Taiwan. Magger has Nemaline Rod Myopathy, which is a type of rare disorder that leads to rod-like structured muscle cell. Like many individuals with rod myopathy, Magger experiences muscle weakness, hypotonia, and difficulties in speech and swallowing. She does require extensive supports—power chair, medical ventilator, other assistive technology devices, and a personal assistant to help with transfer and position so she can fully participate in daily living activities. Sometimes it takes her seven hours a day just to consume food.

Is school an option for her?

Despite the fact that Magger was passionate about learning and interacting with friends, her health condition made her vulnerable to infection, especially when she was younger. In middle school, Magger was homeschooled with an arrangement to attend Science class at a local middle school. Magger’s mom, Evelyn, often spent two hours just to help her get ready to attend one 40-minute session. The extensive care giving demand eventually took a toll on both Evelyn and Magger. Moreover, the limited time in class prevented Magger from having meaningful interaction with her peers. Evelyn and Magger requested live streamed session for the Science class so Magger could watch and learn from home. However, the teacher agreed to only a set-angle, one-way broadcast. The limited access to curriculum and peer interaction was still not what Magger was looking for.

Fortunately, a Science teacher from another school district heard about their experiences through a common friend and reached out to Evelyn. The teacher said even if she had no idea how to setup for tele-education, she would love to have Magger to be part of her class.

The first class was somehow chaotic. Because the teacher was not familiar with iPad, she really had difficulties finding an optimal setup for the camera. Nevertheless, she was determined to include Magger as part of the class. That resolution rippled out to influence the students, who ended up seeing Magger as part of their class, taking Magger on a virtual tour in the lab, even setting up prism and iPad in the hallway so Magger could be part of the experiment on refraction.

That rainbow she and her peers made was—and still is—according to Magger, the most beautiful experiment she’s ever done.

This magical journey continued. Magger made a surprise appearance in class the last session. Her friends even helped her to her designated seat (where they usually set up the iPad). This was a few years ago. Magger now attends Taipei Tech School, majoring in Interaction Design. The school uses multiple devices to broadcast multi-camera live video on her phone so she still can learn from any suitable position. With her AAC device and phone, she also gives guest lectures on a regular basis.

Because of one science teacher who was willing to try, we all know how much potential she has now. Her mom attributed her successful college life to their creative problem-solving skills (from transition between classrooms to utilizing assistive technology) to this experience. Nowadays, I would introduce Magger like this: Magger Chen is an active Facebook user, empathetic animal lover, fearless fashion designer, and she keeps track of all the trendy topics (including mobile games). With pen tablet and stylus, she draws all kinds of professional and beautiful illustrations.

I just can’t wait to see how she would paint her future with rainbow color.

Cover of FIA

Where do you even begin? Begin with SWIFT-FIA

Recently, I was having a conversation with a local school district representative about the SWIFT Education Center and the services we provide to support equity-based inclusive education. As usual, I got a little caught up in my impassioned plea about why all students should participate in and make progress in the general education curriculum. I started rambling on about the research to support inclusive educational practices and the inherent inequity of segregation for students with disabilities. Suddenly, the representative stopped me and said, I understand “why”, but I don’t know “where” to start. She asked me, “what do you do to support districts who believe in inclusive education, but aren’t there yet? Where do you even begin?”

This conversation reminded me that just believing inclusive education is the right thing to do is not enough to make it happen. State, district, and school leaders may want to, and even believe they should, implement inclusive practices but knowing where to start can seem daunting.

Implementing equity-based inclusive education is not as easy as just moving students from one placement to another. Moving students from a segregated classroom to a general education setting does not ensure students are meaningfully participating in and making progress in the general education curriculum with their peers. Too often I see students with disabilities moved from a segregated classroom just to be segregated again within a general education classroom. When a student is sitting in the back corner of a classroom with a paraeducator working on something totally unrelated to the work his or her peers are doing, then the student is not really experiencing the full benefits of inclusion. But, if moving students out of segregated settings isn’t enough, then how do school leaders know what supports need to be in place to ensure true equity-based inclusion is achieved?

The SWIFT framework helps answer this question with ten research-based features that compose the building blocks of inclusive education. SWIFT provides technical assistance and resources to guide implementation of each of the features—but even the most efficient school teams would be hard pressed to tackle all of the features at once. Therefore, schools need guidance on which components of each feature to prioritize during the transformation process.  Luckily, SWIFT has a tool for that.

The SWIFT Fidelity Integrity Assessment (SWIFT-FIA) is a self-assessment used by school leadership teams to examine their implementation of SWIFT framework features. SWIFT-FIA helps school-based teams engage in conversations about what components of each feature they currently have in place. These conversations help teams pinpoint where they are in the stages of implementation for each item. SWIFT-FIA is scored on a 0-3 scale representing these stages: 0 = laying the foundation, 1 = installing, 2 = implementing, and 3 = sustaining schoolwide implementation. To score a SWIFT-FIA, a school leadership team reviews the components of each item and reaches consensus about which elements of the item are currently in place. If the school has not started installing any components of the item, they can begin laying the foundation by discussing the degree to which the item meets the needs of their school and exploring options for implementation. If the school has action plans in place and is implementing some components of the item, they are in the installing stage of actively putting the item in place. Installing may include action items such as identifying key personnel responsible for carrying out the task. If a school has all of the item components in place and is actively working to refine and improve them, the school is in the implementing stage. When a school has all of the item components in place and is actively monitoring implementation to continuously improve practices, they are in the stage of sustaining schoolwide implementation.

By self-assessing stage of implementation across SWIFT features, school leadership teams gather valuable data to guide implementation of inclusive practices. SWIFT-FIA provides a roadmap to teams that feel overwhelmed with where to begin. The results of SWIFT-FIA can be used to identify and prioritize practices for transformation or continuous improvement, develop action plans needed to install and implement practices, and to reflect on the effects of action plans on practices. Teams may choose to use the data to identify strengths in items they are currently installing. They can then leverage their strengths to refine and improve their current practices. On the other hand, teams may choose to use the data to identify the next steps needed to install items that are priorities but not yet in place. SWIFT-FIA gives teams the information they need to guide these implementation decisions.

Even though school transformation can be complicated, my answer to the question of “where you even begin?” is simple: You begin with SWIFT-FIA.

SWIFT-FIA is available at A SWIFT-FIA tracking tool may be used to capture results and graph changes over time and is also available at

If you are interested in learning more about how SWIFT-FIA can be used by your school or district to guide implementation of equity-based MTSS, contact SWIFT at

Photo of blog author.Allyson Satter currently works as a Project Coordinator for SWIFT. Previously, she worked as a special educator, which is where she first learned the value of equity-based inclusion.

How a SWIFT-FIT assessment benefits your school

Hi, I am Dan Pollitt and I work at SWIFT Education Center. I’d like to introduce you to a tool that can help your school and district leadership teams make well informed decisions about how they implement equity-based Multi-Tiered System of Support, or MTSS, for inclusive education.

SWIFT-FIT—which is short for SWIFT Fidelity Implementation Tool—is an assessment organized by SWIFT domains and features and composed of 58 items that are each scored as 0-1-2-3. To date, more than 100 trained assessors have conducted more than 350 of these assessments to help teams measure the degree to which they implement practices that promote equity and excellence for all students.

I am excited to announce that we are launching SWIFT-FIT Version 2.0, updated to reflect the most current research and practices in the field and applicable to PK-12 settings.

A SWIFT-FIT assessment is conducted by a trained, external assessor who visits your school during typical school hours. Throughout the day, this assessor interviews administrators, classroom teachers, school staff, district leaders, students, and family and community members. The assessor asks a range of questions about such topics as how you use Universal Design for Learning (UDL), ways teams collect and use student data, how students are included with peers, and whether family and community members are involved in school governance decisions. To award a high score on each the assessor looks for evidence of the practice implemented across the whole system, without “siloes” that limit access to general education curriculum and activities for any student subgroup.

Because SWIFT-FIT is a system-levelassessment, it measures the degree to which practices are structured, formalized, and in place throughout the school system, rather than haphazard, unstructured, or ad-hoc. Let’s use an example: Take the practice of using universal screeners to collect student data. What is a universal screener? Even if you are not an educator, you are probably familiar with universal screeners! For instance, when you visit the eye doctor, you are asked to read a chart to briefly test for poor eye sight or areas of need. Schools use universal screeners in a very similar fashion: All students are asked to complete them multiple times per year, they are relatively short and unobtrusive, and teams use academic and behavioral screening data to make more-informed instructional decisions. When conducting a SWIFT-FIT assessment, the assessor is looking for evidence that the school has the system-level practice of using universal screeners to collect student data and make decisions about which students may need additional or intensified support. Thanks to this system-level approach, the tool is not measuring one individual classroom teacher or one individual administrator, but instead measuring the whole system.

How can assessments help your school and district leadership teams? A baseline assessment can provide a sense of your “current reality” from an independent perspective. This perspective can be used in important conversations about what steps your school and district might take be more equitable and support all students. As your teams make decisions about the advances they plan to make, subsequent assessments are helpful for tracking progress at an item-by-item level. This objective measure can be used in communicating with school boards or other governance bodies, family and community members, and with school educators and staff.

If your team is considering adopting the SWIFT framework for equitable and excellent teaching and learning for all students, I recommend you consider scheduling a SWIFT-FIT assessment with one of our trained assessors as a way to measure your school’s current reality and progress toward your goal for equity and excellence for all your students. Contact us at


Photo of blog author.Dan Pollitt is a research project manager at the SWIFT Education Center and oversees the training and implementation of SWIFT-FIT and SWIFT-FIA fidelity tools. He is a former elementary and middle school classroom teacher and as an adjunct graduate faculty in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas, teaches undergraduate and graduate students. He can be reached @danpollittphd on Twitter.

SWIFT Family and Community Engagement in the Pendleton (OR) School District

About the same time SWIFT began its partnership with the Pendleton School District in eastern Oregon, the district passed a large bond that allowed them to build two new elementary schools and an early learning center designed to welcome and support all students. Washington Elementary School, in particular, shifted geographical boundaries yet remained a neighborhood school for much of the area’s Native American population, which makes up 13% of students in the district and 36% of Washington Elementary’s total student population. Additionally, many of Washington’s students live at or below the poverty level.

Guided by the SWIFT framework’s emphasis on family and community engagement, the district set two important goals: (1) improve attendance of Native American students at Washington Elementary and the Pendleton Early Learning Center; and (2) reduce disruptive behaviors through implementing Conscious Discipline’s Trauma-Informed Practices. The district hired a Native American Family Advocate, who works on improving attendance among the Native American population. In order to create a welcoming sense of community, through this collaborative effort, signs in the building were printed in English as well as two of the tribes’ languages, Umatilla and Weyilletpuu.

The school shifted their response to absences to align with Conscious Discipline routines. Instead of sending a letter warning parents that they were in violation of attendance statutes, the district now sends a postcard “Wishing them well” and then a care basket to the student’s home when they are absent multiple days. Rather than assuming the parents want to keep their child out of school, this approach recognizes the family may be experiencing stressors that make it difficult for the student to get to school. The district also recognizes cultural practices as “off campus learning activities” instead of unexcused absences.

Recognizing the traumatic effects of marginalization and poverty, the school district adopted trauma-informed practices of Conscious Discipline for all K-5 staff, including teachers, paraprofessionals, school counselors, principals, and even bus drivers.

The district works closely with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and facilitated a connection to a Conscious Discipline trainer. Tribal HeadStart and YellowHawk Health Center now use this trainer. At the first trainings, parents in these programs recognized the practices their school age children had been learning at school and using at home. This increased the school to home connection for our families from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

As a result of these intentional efforts, the school experienced significant reduction in Office Discipline Referrals (ODRs) – the lowest in seven years. From the 2014–2015 school year to the 2016–2017 school year, Out-of-School Suspensions (OSS) dropped from 72.5 total days to 11.5 days, and the total number of incidents that resulted in OSS dropped from 64 to 10. During the same timeframe, the number of incidents that resulted in In-School Suspensions (ISS) dropped from 41 to 5.

-Julie Smith and Laura Miltenberger

Photo of blog post author.Julie Smith’s educational career spans 18 years. Ms. Smith worked as an instructional assistant in special education after obtaining her Bachelor’s Degree in Music Performance. This sparked a lifelong passion for serving students with disabilities in public education. After becoming a licensed special education teacher with a focus on behavioral intervention, Ms. Smith taught in the Beaverton and then Pendleton school districts for nine years. She completed her Master’s of Science in Special Education at Portland State University in 2004 and obtained her National Board for Professional Teaching Certificate in 2007. Ms. Smith worked as a Teacher on Special Assignment, instructional coaching, before starting her career as Special Programs Director at the district office in 2012. Through her career, she has focused on partnering with general educators and administrators to develop an inclusive comprehensive support system for all students. She recently completed her Doctoral Degree in Educational Leadership through Lewis & Clark College.

Three party hats sit on a white background.

Reclaiming the Spirit of the IEP

The brilliant idea that a student’s gifts, abilities, and needs should be regularly understood, identified, and supported is simply common sense—and best practice. I believe that this was the original intent behind IEPs. “Let’s get to know this student and discover what she/he can do and what reliable supports are needed.” The intent was that simple and that profound!

And yet IEP meetings can be clouded by worry, lack of trust, too many forms, and way too much jargon.

How do we reclaim the profound purpose of IEPs? How do we restore a sense that IEP meetings can be an opportunity for creativity, compassion, and conversation—or as one educator said, “How can we make IEP meetings feel like a ‘party with a purpose’?”

Our family has years of thinking about these issues. Our 32-year-old adult son, Micah Fialka Feldman, who has an intellectual disability, was the first student to be fully included in his elementary and secondary schools, and later in his college. The stacks of saved IEPs easily fill three drawers of the old metal file cabinet in our basement. Our daughter, Emma Fialka Feldman, is a second-grade full inclusion teacher in the Boston Public Schools and has been a team member of numerous IEP meetings. Together, we offer two ideas to reclaim the intended spirit of IEPs.

First Suggestion: Use our IEP One-Pager Planning Tool.

We developed a one-page planning tool (click here) that is fairly jargon-free and visually interesting with three or four photos of the student in action. The photos of the student can be placed at the top of the page or scattered about. The five categories listed on the page are:

2-3 things (student) can do independently

2-3 things she/he is beginning to do

2-3 things she/he can do with supports

2-3 key accommodations used

2-3 areas of focus

The goal is to succinctly write specific examples under each category. These categories guide the teacher as he or she prepares for the meeting and reviews the student’s work and experiences. A blank copy of the IEP One-Pager can be shared with families and students prior to the meeting with encouragement to think about their responses.

During IEP meetings, the IEP One-Pager can guide conversations with attention paid to each category and reference to the photos. As students and their families share responses, the tone of the meetings will shift from report language to rapport language, which focuses more on conversation and sharing and less on tackling the form.

The emphasis of the meetings shifts from fixing and curing to “what is the growth?” and how to continue supporting that growth. Later on, when the legal and many-paged IEP form is used, the One-Pager is an easy reference guide, especially when clarity and conciseness is needed.

The feedback from families and educators who are using the IEP One-Pager is very positive. One family indicated they enjoyed posting the completed IEP-One Pager on their refrigerator, as a guide and celebration!

No form alone can result in better communication. Listening, without rushing to solutions, is a key ingredient to strengthening communication and trust, but the right tool can help build a sturdier partnership among educators, students, and families.

Second Suggestion: Involve the student with the disability and their peers at the IEP and pre-planning meetings.

With the full permission and comfort of the student with the disability, peers can be a wonderful support to prepare and participate in the IEP meeting.

Beginning in sixth grade and with the support of his teacher, Micah invited a couple of his friends to help him think about what he had accomplished during the year, what he liked learning, what helped him learn, and what skills he wanted to strengthen. Together, they discussed these areas and then created a simple PowerPoint presentation with photos for the IEP meetings. The youth brought renewed energy, honesty, and enthusiasm to meetings, along with innovative and unique ideas.

One meeting explored the issue of Micah disrupting the class. One of his friends explained that Micah was not alone in sometimes feeling bored in the class. The friend surmised that the real issue was that Micah did not know how to “fake paying attention” the way most of the other students did. The team chuckled, maybe a bit nervously! The solution, easily identified by Micah’s peers, was right on target. “We are going to help Micah learn how to fake paying attention.” Turning to him, they instructed, “Micah, when you feel bored, you gotta make eye contact with the teacher and periodically nod your head.” And indeed, Micah learned this strategy—one that most of us use daily! (Other issues of instructional methods were discussed, but now in the context of real-world ways of handling “boring” moments.)

At another meeting, one of Micah’s friends shared that he thought the paraprofessional was doing too much of the work for Micah and that his friends could be more involved in supporting him or nudging him to complete the work. Although Micah liked the paraprofessional, he really liked the idea of having his friends more involved.

Youth often have the most authentic understanding of what is happening in and outside of the classroom. We miss an opportunity to learn from them when we do not involve them, and we strengthen their sense of camaraderie and community when we invite them to participate.


You may not wear party hats to your next IEP meeting, but you can find creative ways to rekindle the authentic spirit of IEPs and their meetings. Our family offers these two suggestions based on years of experience. Ask your IEP team to try our IEP One-Pager Planning Tool and invite your student with disabilities and a few peers to plan and participate in the meeting. And if wearing a party hat seems too silly, there is nothing wrong with bringing a party treat to the meeting. In our home, after so many meetings and treats, we have actually renamed brownies. They are now and forever only referred to as IEP-brownies! Humor helps too!

– Janice Fialka

Image of blog author.Sometime poet, always learning. Social Worker, author, activist, mother, feminist, wife, Working in community to create a world where everyone’s gifts are respected and folks get their needs met. National speaker on issues related to disability, inclusion, and relationship building between families and professionals.

Handmade sign that reads "One Strong Community."

Oregon State Spotlight

At Lynch Elementary School in Redmond, Oregon, the school leadership team consists of classroom teachers from each grade level, a counselor, one Special Education teacher, a Language Development Coach, Title Reading and Math teachers … and three parents.

“Having these parents as part of our team has made a huge difference in our school,” Principal Rayna Nordstrom said. “Having a parent perspective on our team allows us to get out of our educational world and jargon and focus on the practical. They have helped us to understand confusions that parents may have about our systems and protocols.”

Lynch’s school leadership team made a general call for parent volunteers through the school newsletter, and also asked classroom teachers to share the names of parent volunteers that might want to participate on the team. Nordstrom personally called and invited the parents to be a part of the school leadership team. To be on the team, parents agreed to attend a meeting once a month, give input from themselves and other parents, and participate in Lynch’s Parent Universities (evening events where the school provides dinner, shares opportunities with parents, and educates them on various resources).

Nordstrom hopes parents who join will stay on the team until their children graduate from Lynch. Two of the parents will be moving on when their children enter middle school in the fall, so one of Lynch’s key jobs this Spring is to find replacements for them.

One challenge that arose during the recruiting process was deciding how many parents to invite and which information they needed parent opinion or thoughts on. The team originally planned on having two parents on the team. The school leadership team invited three families in case one wasn’t able to participate, but all three jumped at the opportunity. Instead of uninviting one, the team decided to keep them all.

Lynch is currently gathering parent input on the school’s new mission and vision. During parent-teacher conferences, parents went to the lobby to vote for their preferred statements to guide the new mission and vision. The school administration also surveyed parents on their preference of the next Parent University Night, which will be held this Spring. Participation in these lobby surveys was well-received. A “Dot Chart” showed how other parents voted and made it easy for everyone to see the consensus.

Thanks to the feedback from parent surveys and parents on the leadership team, Lynch hosted Parent Nights for the school’s families. Spanish Math Night had 80 family members in attendance. The night’s events were conducted in Spanish, and families learned to play math games. Another evening was a Behavior Support Night. The district behavior specialist and district technology specialist addressed the entire group, sharing tips and ideas on bullying and cyberbullying, and the importance of a school/parent partnership in shaping positive behavior. Parents rotated through several stations: Mosaic Medical and Deschutes County Behavioral Health therapist (community partners), School Tools (the strategies, tools and protocols used at school were shared and families took some of the tools home), and Technology Specialist (handout on positive online behavior tips). Two parents from the leadership team also hosted a Parents Helping Parents station where they shared with other parents how they personally handle behavior situations with their children.

Inviting parents to join the school leadership team is all part of Lynch’s commitment to family engagement. Each grade level is implementing at least two family engagement opportunities, and activities often center around times when parents are already at the school. For example, each month Lynch hosts an awards assembly tied to a specific character trait. Grade levels take turns presenting something specific at the assembly and they invite famiiles to watch. Several grade level teams then invite parents to stay in the classroom to participate in an activity. Activities ranged from playing math games to creating Valentines.

“We have only just begun getting parents more involved in our school,” Nordstrom said. “We have goals to strengthen our PTO, increase the number of parents volunteering in classrooms, and adding more community partners.”

Photo of blog author.Lucy supports SWIFT Center’s Communications Team as a Communications Specialist, which is just a fancy way of saying she edits, writes, and otherwise owns whatever lands on her desk that day. Lucy has been hard of hearing since age 4, and is passionate about accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities, especially those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Student working with a teacher one on one.

Lessons Learned in Maryland: Looking Back and Going Forward

SWIFT partner schools in Maryland learned two vitally important lessons about creating equity-based inclusion for all students:

1)    Changing mindsets changes practices.

2)    Relationships matter most.

Changing mindsets changes practices

The mindset of fitting children with unique needs into specially prescribed programs has given way to the belief that every child is unique and therefore interventions need to support students’ individual learning styles and challenges—in the regular classroom, alongside their peers, with full access to the general education curriculum. In the past, students who struggled with reading relied on pre-determined programs for support.  Now the focus is on an instructional match for interventions delivered in the classroom and based on students’ needs. An example of this changing mindset is West Side Elementary in Allegany County. After carefully looking at student data and evaluating student outcomes, educators found that the programs were not always meeting students’ individual learning needs.  Once educators began looking at the unique profiles of students, they began matching the expertise and talent of various educators to the interventions.

In addition to literacy instruction, this changing mindset allowed educational personnel to view academic and behavior screeners, not as tools for compliance, but rather as learning opportunities to examine what successes are occurring and what opportunities are needed in order to identify and provide the best supports and interventions for all students. A focus on data and an investment in problem-solving protocols resulted in “just right” academic and behavior tiered supports.  School transformation teams lead and support teacher collaboration, coaching, and professional development.  To illustrate the mindset of thinking about each and every child as unique, a middle school in Queen Anne’s County capitalized on the winter administration of a behavior screener to provide a follow-up professional development session, using a video based on the school shootings in Sandy Hook . This professional development opportunity generated important discussions about getting to know every child’s strengths and needs; being proactive with supports and interventions; and most importantly, building relationships with all students.

Relationships matter most

Relationships among educational personnel, students, families, and community members led to a sense of shared responsibility for the successful outcomes of all students. This feeling is particularly strong among families and community members. While their involvement was a goal from the beginning of Maryland’s SWIFT partnerships, it wasn’t until schools started asking what family and community members are able, willing, and interested in doing, and deeply listening to their responses, that families and communities gained a voice in the school. Family members are now recognized as valuable members of the team in mutually beneficial relationships.  Parents are asked what is needed, not just informed about what is good for themselves and their children. Educators are taking the time to ask parents and families about the hopes and dreams for their children. Parents serve on instructional leadership teams and provide input to determine future direction and activities.  More surveys are going out to families and schools, looking seriously at their input and how they can improve the academic and social outcomes of all students and the health and well-being of families and communities.

Positive relationships among school and district leaders are also growing.  Principals are part of cross-functional District Implementation Teams and all are engaged in understanding the value of implementation science when thinking about new innovations and initiatives.  Conversations and collaboration have changed from just a few voices to all viewpoints being valued and leading to shared decision making. For instance, in Allegany County, the four SWIFT partner school principals have been advisers to the Chief Academic Officer; in Baltimore City, three principals attended the District Capacity Assessment and provided valuable feedback around district long-range planning, communication structures, and strategies for enhancing coaching supports. Similar shared decision-making opportunities are occurring in both Cecil County and Queen Anne’s County.

Since becoming a SWIFT partner state, everyone in Maryland’s SWIFT partner districts is focused on positive outcomes and takes responsibility for student achievement and success.  Maryland SWIFT partners do their best to include everyone in their efforts to achieve equity-based inclusive education and improve the academic, behavioral, and social outcomes of all students. From the school administrative staff to the custodians, from teachers to paraprofessionals, every adult is involved in every child’s learning.

Mindset shifts and relationships matter in Maryland!

– Linda Ann Rohrbaugh

Photo of blog author.I’ve been an educator since 1971. I remember standing in front of my first class of 35 second graders wondering, “What do I do now?” I think I asked that same question when I became a principal, a Director, and even now as a SWIFT LEA Facilitator. The answer can always be found in thinking about children and their families – my passion and energy for possibilities and making dreams happen for ALL children is what I want/need to do now . . I’m so lucky to be a part of the SWIFT transformation!!

Families, Communities, and Schools—A Mutual Partnership

As a hard of hearing student, I had the supports I needed in elementary school to be successful and learn alongside my hearing peers when I was in the general education classroom—a sign language interpreter, preferential seating at the front of the room, and a personal FM system that helped me better distinguish my teachers’ voices from the classroom ambience (an FM system is a wireless assistive hearing device that assists people who are hard of hearing by transmitting sound from the source—usually a microphone worn by a teacher—to a listener). Many of my hearing classmates even learned sign language. As far as I know, no one told them to—it was easy for them to pick up simply by having me and an interpreter around every day.

I also had one-on-one/small group instruction with the speech therapist and the Deaf/Hard of Hearing (D/HH) resource teacher—an educational professional who specialized in supporting deaf and hard of hearing students. The one-on-one instruction helped me learn valuable social skills—things that most kids my age simply picked up on by osmosis and overhearing their peers and parents resolve conflicts and engage in everyday encounters. Thanks to their training and individualized attention, my speech therapist and resource teacher were able to catch those little areas of deficiency and fill in the gaps in a way my general education teacher did not.

I am grateful for this academic foundation, but the downside was that my school, as wonderful and supportive as it was, was not in my neighborhood. I attended a more local school for kindergarten and first grade, but when that school closed, the D/HH program relocated to a school farther away—a 30-minute drive and even longer bus ride. My parents thought it was best to stay with the teachers who knew and supported me, so I went where the program went. Most, if not all, of the other deaf and hard of hearing students did the same. So looking back, I suspect the district was not equipped to provide accommodations at every school. It was easier for the district if we were all in the same place instead of spread out at different schools throughout the city.

While that made for a relatively cohesive social dynamic at school, it did not carry over as seamlessly to my life outside of school. My friends from my neighborhood and church didn’t have the same exposure to my supportive environment as my classmates did, and I didn’t want to feel “different” among them. As a result, my local community was not as intuitive about learning how to be more accessible or communicate with me, nor was I particularly eager for them to learn sign language or do anything—however helpful—that might highlight my “difference.” That is not to say that my neighborhood or family did nothing to advocate for my needs. They certainly did, but without the organic support of a nearby local school, advocacy was an isolating endeavor.

In contrast, the state school for the deaf, located in a suburb of my metropolitan area, is situated in an accessible community. The school’s outreach programs provide support for deaf and hard of hearing students, even those who opted for public school over the school for the deaf. The school provides FM systems, evaluations, and even professional development, as needed, to students in the public schools. Doing so strengthens the school for the deaf’s ties to the community, and when I attended college in that area, I was struck by how accessible it was compared to my hometown. Cashiers, restaurant servers, other retail employees, and even passersby often knew at least a little bit of sign language and communicated intuitively with me—they knew to face me and speak clearly, without any prompting. Even the movie theater was among the first in the metropolitan area to show subtitled versions of the latest blockbusters. For the most part, everywhere I went, people seemed at ease with my “difference,” which helped me feel a greater sense of belonging. All because the deaf school engaged with the community, and the community responded in kind.

One of SWIFT’s five domains is Family and Community Engagement, and for good reason. A mutual partnership between families/communities and schools is vital for students’ well-rounded success, both academically and socially. But if the school is too far away, then both the student and their community miss out on that mutually beneficial relationship. It may be more convenient for districts to designate certain supports for certain subgroups of students to just one or two schools, but that is only a short-term solution.

Just like in real estate, location, location, location matters. Equipping every school to provide equity-based inclusive education ensures access for both students and their communities. A supportive, enriching school environment is a good thing and should be celebrated, but when it’s far from home, its effects are less fruitful than they could be. On the other hand, when the community and school are close to and all in with each other, conditions are ripe for student flourishing.

-Lucy Crabtree

Photo of blog author.Lucy supports SWIFT Center’s Communications Team as a Communications Specialist, which is just a fancy way of saying she edits, writes, and otherwise owns whatever lands on her desk that day. Lucy has been hard of hearing since age 4, and is passionate about accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities, especially those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Scaling Up in the Granite State: New Hampshire Focuses on Family and Community Engagement

From eight original SWIFT schools to more than 20 working to implement SWIFT Domains and Features, New Hampshire is proudly promoting and implementing All Means All.

Sue Swenson, the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation (OSERS) at the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) recently visited the Granite State.  Swenson met with parent leaders; University of New Hampshire students and LEND (Leaders in Education and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities) trainees; the Commissioner of Education, Virginia Barry, and NHDOE staff; leaders of parent organizations; and Dr. Wayne Sailor and SWIFT partner school educators.  She also toured SWIFT partner Pittsfield School District and recorded a podcast for SWIFT, which you can listen to here.

Sue was generous with her wisdom and her time as she shared stories of her personal journey from a mother promoting inclusion for her son, Charlie, to her current role guiding special education policy for the USDOE.

A major theme of her visit was the importance of parent and community engagement.

“One of the things I love about the SWIFT process is having an evidence-based structure of Domains and Features and a real thoughtful way to help parents gently learn that they need to speak up,” she said.  “Engagement is the key to everything. “

Consistent with SWIFT, the USDOE reports that states are increasingly employing family engagement strategies as a tool to promote educational equity and support growing populations of diverse students.  Backed up by research, SWIFT teaches that trusting family partnerships contribute to positive student outcomes when family members and school staff have respectful, mutually beneficial relationships with shared responsibility for student learning; family members have options for meaningful involvement in their children’s education and in the life of the school; and the school responds to family interests and involvement in a culturally responsive manner.

SWIFT partner schools in New Hampshire are striving to increase and promote family engagement. During the recent forum sponsored by the NHDOE on the topic of family and community engagement, Assistant Secretary Swenson and school and district leaders listed examples and set goals for next steps for increasing the role of parents and community members in all aspects of their schoolwide transformation efforts.  Some examples are described below:

  • A school hired a community member to be a liaison between the school, families, and the community.
  • A school building houses the town recreation department, granting all students easier access to community recreation activities.
  • Parents serve on SWIFT school and districtwide leadership teams and school boards, and contribute to educational policy, such as by providing guidance on NH’s adoption of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
  • A school shifted the role of the PTO box top fundraising to a parent advisory group to engage parents in decision making and advising on school policy and related topics.
  • Schools are surveying families to learn their skills and interests and how those strengths can support school communities.

As you share your own experiences creating trusting family partnerships and engaging families and community members in the schoolwide transformation effort, keep Assistant Secretary Swenson’s words in mind:

“SWIFT is a beacon of hope for schools.  SWIFT is helping schools and families realize that our schools are better for all kids when all kids are included.  It’s just better for everybody.  We are going to turn a corner and reach a tipping point, and all of a sudden schools are going to realize that the secret to improving performance is inclusion.”

-Maura Hart

Photo of author blog.I began working in Education as a middle and high school English teacher, during which time I earned my Master’s of Education Degree with Antioch University New England and began adjunct teaching for them. While I LOVED teaching in the public schools and working with my students, my life path took me on a different course. During the time when I had two babies and stayed home with them, I went to UMass to get my Ph.D. (it seemed like a good idea at the time…) This work brought me to consulting with schools and districts as a team facilitator and teacher trainer and coach. My experience with a district in Vermont introduced me to the SWIFT Center where I now work with amazingly talented and passionate educators who are committed to including all children in all classrooms.

Tan stairs

Difficult Dialogues on Disproportionality

Who’s in your basement?

A blog is a conversation and I hope that you will join in and bring your perspectives and experiences.  I come to this conversation first as a product of public education, and second as the parent of students who attended public schools.  My public school education was in a segregated system in a large city in the North.  My classmates and I were segregated by race, and possibly by ability, but any labels were not so evident then.  We were fairly well integrated by socioeconomic status.  It may have been that the kids whose parents were black doctors and lawyers lived in a different neighborhood for K-8, but we all came together in high school.  So, disproportionality in placement, special education classification, and disciplinary actions were not that evident to me.

On the other hand, my children were educated in a school system that had lots of diversity, both racially and economically, and lots of labels: gifted, Title I Basic Skills, talented, honors, advanced placement, regular.  These labels translated into lots of opportunities for looking at who is in each group, who is not in each group, and who’s in “the basement.”

Sometimes “the basement” is a physical place in a building.  In a keynote address at a conference on disproportionality a few years ago, renowned speaker on equity Dr. Pedro Noguera shared a story about talking to a group of teachers and school administrators about the achievement gap.  The principal approached him about a discipline challenge that his school was having.  The principal noted that some African-American male students were constantly getting into trouble when they came upstairs to their classes from their classes in the basement.  Noguera’s fairly curt solution was, “Then get them out of the basement.”  I introduced myself and asked Dr. Noguera where that school was located and, sadly, I wasn’t surprised when he named one of my children’s schools, where African-American boys were the majority of the students in the bottom floor of that four-story building.

More often, “the basement” is a place in the data – that bottom quartile in student achievement data that is coupled with high rates of disciplinary referrals, suspensions, and expulsions.  That data basement is about who’s accessing the least restrictive environments for special education students and who’s experiencing large rates of placement in segregated settings.  It’s about who is taking rigorous college prep courses including algebra by grade 8, and who isn’t due to the lack of supports and scaffolding.  The data basements include post-secondary education attainment and completion rates, unemployment rates, and incarceration rates.  We’ve heard the national data and know who is in our country’s “basement.”  Do you know who is in “the basement” in your schools, districts, and communities?

Taking it on Together is Tough

Here in the Northeast, basements tend to be musty, dusty, and damp.  We hate to go down in them and we definitely don’t invite guests.  But if we want to clear out and deal with what’s in our educational basements, we need to bring everyone together – school and district administrators, educators (not just special educators), support service providers, community leaders, and parents of students across the ability groups.  Each has to own up, accept what’s theirs, and commit to taking action to move it out.  “Never doubt that a small group of concerned and committed citizens can change the world” is an often used quote from Margaret Mead that is a core value for me.  And that’s the perspective that I bring to addressing disproportionality as a leader of a non-profit parent-led information, training, and advocacy organization – Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) in New Jersey.

Through a cooperative agreement with the state education agency, we are working in districts to bring those key stakeholders to the table to gather, analyze, and share data that unveils some not-too-pretty information on what is and is not happening for students. It is a difficult, uncomfortable, and necessary dialogue.  For professionals, this transparency with “guests” in the room is tough.  For families and communities — especially of students who are being left behind — the sense of sadness, anger, blame, and self-examination is profound, until they are convinced that together, something can and will happen to wrestle with the systemic issues and change the trajectory.

Many excellent tools are available to start these dialogues, to help districts to make sure that the right people are in the room, and to have groups begin to coalesce around these serious issues.  In some districts, we start with overall capacity building activities to develop partnerships with parents/families and community stakeholders, and identify and discuss the needs, concerns, aspirations, and successes regarding issues that affect the education and well-being of students.  Administrators, teachers, parents, and community leaders have used the Leading by Convening resources to learn skills for a new paradigm for shared leadership, while working with the group and also for catalyzing their own constituents to support the group’s work.  We educate and support parents by being informed and contributing partners during those tough conversations that must happen if we are going to move the numbers and get rid of the basements.  To help parents increase their knowledge, skills, and confidence to actively participate in these decision-making groups, we offer training and support using the Wisconsin Family Assistance Center on Education, Training, and Support’s series of on-line modules and in-person workshops on Serving on Groups.

We help facilitate the collaboration among these voices through team-building processes that result in constructive dialogues about the data to be looked at, how that data will be analyzed, and ways to share the data with the group and with the entire community in order to build a sense of urgency.  Groups use the data to develop shared goals and a vision for the work, along with a group identity that helps everyone to stay focused each time they meet.  A plan is developed, with measures for evaluating progress, celebrating successes, and recalibrating when things don’t work out as planned.  The members of the group and their constituents work together to put the plan into action and commit to staying the course.

By creating a partnership, addressing the real challenges of disproportionality is far more possible.  Groups begin to realize the many strengths and resources that have come to the table, with shared goals of eliminating that basement data and using the physical space for learning activities for all students.  They take responsibility for solutions and action, both individually and systemically.  Because this work is not easy and requires long-term diligence to keep our students out of the basements, SPAN works to build local leadership commitment as well as parent and community capacity that will help sustain the change efforts beyond the short time that we provide direct support.

– Debra Jennings

Photo of blog authorDebra Jennings’s experience as an advocate and leader includes organizing and supporting grassroots parent advocacy organizations and efforts around general and special education issues. She joined SPAN in 1997 to lead its “Parents Engaged in Public Policy Project” and now serves as its Executive Co-Director for Parent Leadership and National Projects. On several state and national advisory committees, Debra is committed to ensuring that the voices of parents/families and communities are not left out of discussions of policies and practices impacting children and families. Debra is a graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in Economics and has completed coursework in business, finance, public administration and non-profit management at the Kellogg School of Management and Seton Hall University Center for Public Service. Debra’s eclectic professional experience prior to joining SPAN in 1997 includes construction, economic development, finance and constituent affairs. Debra also served on a local school board. She is the mom and first advocate of two daughters, one of whom received special education services and the other who participated in Title I Basic Skills. Both are college graduates. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, a middle school administrator.