Six Successes and Ten Strategies: Students on Alternate Assessments in Equity-Based Inclusive Education

The Cecil County team of committed educators are continually asking the question, “How do we promote membership, participation, and learning for all students in general education classrooms?”  We are seeing positive results by way of increased socialization, communication, decreases in behaviors, and evidence that students are accessing and learning grade-level curriculum!  Consider the following examples:

A first-grade student with autism (formerly on track for alternate assessment) is now doing grade-level work and the paraprofessional is supporting the class as a whole, rather than acting solely as a 1:1 support for this student.  What made the difference? Educators hold high expectations for the student and ensure she is a fully participating member in the general education instruction.

A breakthrough moment occurred for a sixth-grade student with challenging behavior when the teachers created alternative pathways to the regular curriculum instead of an alternate curriculum taught with different materials in a separate part of the room.  The student was treated as a full-time member and felt a sense of belonging, and the challenging behaviors decreased.

In a kindergarten class, a five-year-old who does not speak with his voice is in general education 100% of the time.  As a full-time member of the class, his peers provide support for him to participate in whole-group instruction, and he has moved from running around the room to participating in classroom routines without paraeducator support.

Another student in kindergarten who did not use her voice to communicate, and whose behaviors challenged the educators, is now fully included and using augmentative and alternative communication  with core vocabulary connected to the classroom curriculum and routines.  She is now also beginning to use her voice to express herself.

In fifth grade, an 11-year-old boy with significant disabilities who does not speak with his voice was in a general education class, but existed as an “island in the back of the room,” working on alternate activities.  Educators now adapt materials to grade-level standards and he is included in general education classroom routines. The special education teacher and general education teacher collaborate to address the student’s needs and the student is successfully learning grade level curriculum.

A third-grade student with autism was receiving all of his education—except science and social studies—outside of the classroom.  He moved from part-time participation in general education with expectations for alternative outcomes to full time-membership in the general education curriculum.  He is now following a general diploma track!

Cecil County strives to achieve membership, participation, and learning for students with significant disabilities in many ways. Here are ten strategies related to the student successes described above:

  • Students attend the school ordinarily attended by children in their local community.
  • Student are members of age-appropriate general education classrooms, which includes their names on class lists, job lists, and so forth.
  • The school delivers related services to the students primarily in general education classrooms and/or during times of the day that coincide with the emphasized skills.
  • Natural supports such as peers, classroom teachers, and other members of the school community are available to provide assistance, scaffold interactions, give encouragement, and develop social relationships/friendships.
  • Communication materials and instruction, including AAC devices, are provided to students who need them to communicate content and messages that are similar to their classmates’.
  • Students participate in the same instructional routines as their classmates: whole-class, small group, partners, one-on-one, etc.
  • In small group activities, students are supported to share information, take notes, and socialize. In whole-class discussions, students are supported to brainstorm, call out answers, take notes, and engage in social side talk.
  • Students transition between classes with other students, arriving and leaving at the same time.
  • Students are supported to complete assignments and other work products commensurate with their peers and aligned with the grade-level curriculum.
  • Students demonstrate classroom-based learning through a variety of methods monitored by the classroom teacher and based on high expectations of all class members.

These successes are the direct result of administrative support for equity-based inclusion, collaboration among educators, partnerships with the families, and attention to full-time membership, participation, and learning.

-Michael McSheehan, SWIFT Technical Assistance Coordinator 

Photo of blog author.Michael McSheehan serves as the Coordinator of Technical Assistance for the School-wide Integrated Framework for Transformation (SWIFT) Center, which was established in 2012. He is a Project Director at the University of New Hampshire, Institute on Disability and National Center on Inclusive Education. Prior to working with the SWIFT Center, Michael led a variety of state and federally funded initiatives to advance research, policy, and practice in inclusive education, alternate assessment, collaborative teaming, and Response to Intervention (RtI). For example, he was a developer, researcher, and co-author of The Beyond Access Model, an intensive supports planning model for teams working with students with significant disabilities. Michael also helped lead a five-year, state-wide project to develop and implement a Response-to-Intervention model for academic and behavioral supports with seven elementary schools and five school districts in New Hampshire.

Supporting Schoolwide Transformation

My previous experience in the Kansas City, KS School District and the New Orleans Recovery School District post-Hurricane Katrina showed me how many students, particularly students who were African-American, were deeply affected by either challenging circumstances or ineffective supports in their schooling.

But Stanton Elementary School in Washington, DC turned my training upside down.  Most of the parents at Stanton were under 23 years old, and many of the students at the school exhibited at-risk and problem behavior.  The principal was working hard to turn that school around, and if Stanton closed, the consequences would have been dramatic for the community.

Many of the behavior problems were not even specific to the classroom.  For instance, I was walking down the halls of Stanton Elementary helping with some hallway supervision and passed the boys’ restroom. A boy was sitting barefoot in a concrete sink with the water running. Worried for his safety, I stepped into the bathroom and said, “Hey, let’s move out of the sink.”  He jumped with his wet feet out of the sink into my arms.  As someone studying inclusive education, my goal was to intellectualize and create an idea of what education can be for all kids, but each and every day teachers are in classes dealing with things like this that we can’t even imagine.

My experience at Stanton Elementary made me realize how much I still had to learn about inclusive education. How do you provide support to students with the most significant needs?  The traditional Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) model requires us to think about efficiencies around three levels: universal instruction, additional support, and intensified support. But what do you do when most of the school needs intensive support? Stanton clarified for me that it was time to think about Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) in a different way, as a framework to meet the needs of every single student in the building, not just the kids with IEPs.

MTSS originally emerged from Response to Intervention, which entails looking at how a student is responding to an intervention and asking what changes need to be made in order for that student to be successful.  At SWIFT, we apply MTSS to the whole school.

From the very beginning of a partnership with a state, district, or school, we ask, “Who are the children in this building? Who are the teachers and the staff and the resources in the building? What is the space that we have? How can we set up a master schedule, course curriculum, and tiered interventions to meet the needs of all kids?” MTSS in the SWIFT framework is a transformative way of thinking about education for all, instead of meeting the needs of one individual to the exclusion of others in the system.

MTSS works. Stanton Elementary was slated to close, but after implementing whole school reform, students began to excel and their grades improved. We took a whole year just to focus on behavior, and layered in academics to get that school out of crisis. The same thing happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—the adults and children in the school needed time to heal.  Then of course, SWIFT’s 64 schools in 17 districts in five states gave us lots of exemplars of effective, equitable education for all kids, including those with very significant needs.

My ideal school is one where students’ supports aren’t based on a label, or a predetermined space, slot, or funding. Instead, teachers and administrators ask themselves and each other how to best support every child who walks in those school doors. SWIFT has the tools to help make this vision a reality—the resource inventory, master schedule, tiered intervention matrix, and intervention planning are all available on our website in the SWIFT MTSS Starter Kit.

As a framework for whole school transformation, SWIFT ensures that every child and educator has the support they need to be successful in the general education classroom. Equity-based inclusion is truly a team effort, and whatever stage of implementation you are in—from visioning to sustaining—SWIFT is committed to supporting you every step of the way.

-Dr. Amy McCart

Photo of blog author.Amy McCart, Ph.D. is an Associate Research Professor with Special Graduate Faculty Status at the University of Kansas. Dr. McCart is the director of technical assistance for the SWIFT Center. Additionally, she is the principal investigator for multiple federal projects through the U.S. Department of Education to support urban schools implementing school-wide positive behavior support. As part of her work with school-wide positive behavior support, she serves as a collaborating partner in the National Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavior Intervention and Support. Dr. McCart worked in a number of urban schools, including the Recovery School District in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, and the District of Columbia, Washington Public Schools. She was the site director at an agency supporting individuals with low incidence disabilities working to improve quality of life. She is also focused on utilizing agency-focused multi-tiered prevention to support families with mental health needs in poverty and their young children.

SWIFT Guide Logo

Introducing SWIFT-FIG!

I like to think of the SWIFT features as the “Top 10 ways to make your school fully inclusive,” and SWIFT-FIG is your guide for understanding those features.

Student with teacher after graduation

Teaching the Teacher

Parker reminded me of the power teachers have to make or break a student. Positive teacher-student relationships matter. I am grateful Parker taught me this lesson.