For his first five years in public education, Simon attended a self-contained classroom in the school across town with other students who were labeled with “intellectual disabilities.” Every school day, a bus designated for Simon and his classmates pulled into Simon’s driveway and delivered him to school, where he was met by his special education assistant and escorted to his self-contained classroom.  When he wasn’t working on “life skills” with his class, Simon joined his non-disabled peers for recess on the playground and during music class.  At the end of the school day, he returned home on the bus and spent his afternoon watching TV or playing with his brother and sister.

Year after year, this scenario played out for Simon. He worked on learning to tie his shoes, recognizing his colors and the letters of the alphabet, writing his name, greeting his friends, and other basic communication skills.

Meanwhile, school leaders and family members were inspired to improve outcomes for ALL students and learned about the academic, social, and behavior benefits of equity-based inclusive education and the importance of schoolwide transformation in ensuring that all students have access to the general education classroom in their neighborhood school.  This meant dismantling Simon’s self-contained classroom and enrolling Simon and his classmates in their local schools by the beginning of the following school year.  Simon’s mother was filled with many emotions – excitement that her son would meet other children in the neighborhood and hopefully make friends; anxiety that he would not be welcomed and people would not understand his unique way of communicating; and apprehension that he would not be able to “keep up” with his grade level peers and lose skills as a result.

Fast forward to the next school year, and Simon is thriving.  He walks to school with his sister and new friends from his neighborhood. Simon participates in the afterschool Robot Club and is learning to play drums in the school band.  He receives individualized and small group instruction during reading time to boost his literacy skills.  He is learning to read and has shown keen interest in the captioned versions of instructional films and Harry Potter movies. General and specialized educators work together to plan lessons and a paraprofessional is assigned to his classroom to assist all students.

His mother says he laughs more; but Simon also complains about homework taking time away from fun.  Simon’s mother now serves on the school Leadership Team and provides feedback on strategies to welcome students and families who are transitioning to their neighborhood schools.   According to his mother, Simon’s transition to his neighborhood school was not always easy, but 100% worth it. The following strategies eased the way:

1)    As the district planned for the dismantling of the self-contained classroom, students went on individual field trips to visit their future schools and meet peers and teachers. “Ambassadors,” typical same-age students at the new schools, led the school tours and introduced the new and returning students to one another.

2)    During the summer, Simon enrolled in his neighborhood parks and recreation camp to meet children in his new school community. The strategy was part of his extended school year program (ESYP), and the school district provided a stipend so the program could hire an additional staff member to make sure that Simon’s support needs were met.

3)    Simon’s general education classroom teacher visited Simon and his family at home to learn firsthand about the family culture and Simon’s unique learning style, and discuss ways that his mother might be involved in the school community.

4)    District and school administrative leadership provided school teams with professional development to address learning opportunities such as co-teaching, differentiated instruction, universal design for learning, data-based decision making, collaborative peer instruction, and multi-tiered system of support.

5)    Data-based decision making afforded the team accurate information to celebrate successes, rise to new challenges, and maintain focus on All Means All and the importance of equity-based inclusive education.

Whether you are transitioning students from schools across town, out-of-district placements, or from more separate environments, Simon’s experience illustrates the effectiveness of SWIFT’s schoolwide transformation process. Visit swiftschools.org for more information on and strategies for equity-based inclusive education.

-Mary Schuh

Dr. Mary Schuh has more than 25 years experience in inclusive schools and communities, family and consumer leadership , and educational systems change and has been with the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability since its inception in 1987. She directs The National Center on Inclusive Education (NCIE) at the Institute on Disability. The NCIE is a leader in the transformation of schools so that students of all abilities are successfully learning in their home schools within general education settings. Mary serves as a member of the National Leadership Consortium of The SWIFT Center. As a faculty member of the University of New Hampshire, Mary helps to prepare future teachers to welcome and engage families, and teach all students in typical school and general education environments.