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Betty Edwards - Project UNIFY

Post submitted by Dr. Betty Edwards, a consultant in the area of middle grades education, inclusion, school improvement, classroom assessment, and the connection between dropout prevention and middle grades education. As a strong believer that an engaging, high-quality education is both an individual right and societal responsibility, she has worked consistently to make connections that lead to stronger educational opportunities for all students. Edwards recently served as executive director of whole child partner the Association for Middle Level Education (formerly NMSA), the nation's largest professional association focusing specifically on the education of young adolescents. She has served on numerous advisory boards, including America's Promise, The League, and the National Youth Leadership Council, and she currently serves as the chair of the National Education Leaders Network for Special Olympics Project UNIFY. Contact Edwards by e-mail at bedwardsk@aol.com.

As an adult, do you ever remember being excluded from a situation—or at least feeling excluded? Maybe it was at a dinner party where you knew few of the other guests and the conversation was about people or events about which you knew very little. Perhaps it was at work where you were never part of the group who went out together after work. How did it make you feel? Did it make you doubt yourself? Did you withdraw—even a little? Did it have an impact on future interactions?

Imagine that this social exclusion was connected to your success at work. Have you ever felt excluded from opportunities to work on important projects or from situations in which you could lend your leadership skills and insights? There has been significant research on the challenges for women advancing in the workplace—"breaking the glass ceiling." Examples of this are often connected to being excluded from "male-oriented" social or sports situations—those in which important relationships are made and advancements born.

Now, imagine that you are in middle school or high school—a time when your self-esteem is at its most fragile point. What would it be like to be excluded from social situations or isolated from comprehensive learning opportunities? What if your opinions were never considered or you weren't even considered to have leadership skills in any area? What if you were "invisible" to others or only seen in negative terms?

This is the situation for far too many students—those who see things a little differently from others or those with an intellectual disability. While physical and academic inclusion are mandated by law, social inclusion is our next great civil rights issue. "Separate but equal" was never equal, nor just, and the separation of students throughout the school day or within school activities hinders the development of all youth. Lessening the opportunities for all students to share their voices and be active parts of the school limits the impact of the school on youth learning and development. It is through youth leadership and engagement that students not only learn their strengths, but also grow to appreciate the gifts of others.

Special Olympics is working to build communities that promote acceptance, inclusion, and friendships. Established in 2008, Project UNIFY provides programs and resources that activate youth as they help develop school communities where young people are agents of change—where all students are capable of being leaders, participate in school activities, and foster respect and dignity for all. Through advocating and supporting the inclusion of all students within the school community, each student benefits.

Project UNIFY builds upon the Special Olympics platform of inclusive sports, games, and events, offering opportunities for interactions between students with and without intellectual disabilities. These interactions result in relationships that lead to true understanding and mutual respect.

Throughout the past year, teams of adults and youth have worked with Project UNIFY's National Education Leadership Network to provide resources and support that advance inclusion in our schools. The work identified through the following four collaborative initiatives will be shared throughout the coming year in a variety of formats:

Characteristics of Inclusive Youth Leadership and Engagement
Based upon the Kouzes and Posner Model of Leadership, the principles for authentic and inclusive youth leadership, along with the supporting roles of adults, are identified under the categories of "Model the Way," "Inspire a Shared Vision," "Challenge the Process," "Enable Others to Act," and "Encourage the Heart."

Characteristics of Inclusive Schools
An inclusive school has a climate that fosters inclusion, acceptance, respect, and human dignity for all students, no matter their perceived abilities, and is the foundation upon which schools educate, motivate, and activate students. This document identifies these specific characteristics in the following areas:

  • Youth Leadership
  • School-Community Collaborations
  • Continuous Improvement
  • Communication
  • Professional Development
  • Unifying Programming
  • Creating and Sustaining Relationships

Policy Agenda
Inclusive schools, according to the Inclusive Schools Network, are built on the strong philosophical belief that all children can learn and be successful within a shared academic environment. The identified policy options support, encourage, and reward inclusive schools.

Building Coalitions
None of us can do the work alone, and we commit to working with other organizations with a common mission to ensure that all youth have the opportunity to learn, lead, and grow. Collaborations will be pursued among:

  • Decision-Makers—those that are positioned to help influence policies and practices.
  • Influencers—entities that can be helpful in spreading this work with their networks.
  • The Leverage Points—stakeholders who may collaborate on specific activities.

So, if you remember times when you were excluded or if you have witnessed situations in which youth were excluded from full engagement in their schools, join Project UNIFY and take the necessary steps to correct the situation. We cannot advance as a supportive, inclusive society without the involvement of every member of society. And from my experiences with members of Project UNIFY's Youth Activation Committee, don't underestimate the passion, drive, and dedication of a group of youth determined to make a difference. We only have to provide the opportunity, support, and respect—the youth will show us the way.

Project UNIFY is an education-based project, made possible through the U.S. Department of Education, that uses the sports programs of Special Olympics to activate young people across the U.S. in order to promote school communities where all young people are agents of change—fostering respect, dignity, and advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities. The program's goals include expanding youth participation in Unified Sports teams and Young Athletes Programs, encouraging the introduction of the new K–12 Get Into It inclusive service-learning curriculum in schools, promoting the Spread the Word to End the Word "r-word" campaign, providing funding for progressive state Special Olympics Programs, and eligible youth activation and teacher projects, as well as conducting and participating in national forums and conferences on youth, intellectual disabilities, and education. For more information, visit the Project UNIFY website and follow them on Facebook.

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