The following blog post was written by a unified pair of youth leaders who participate in local and national youth engagement and activation conferences to enhance their communication, leadership, and advocacy skills. These youth continue to collaborate and motivate other youth to become active in our pathway toward social justice for all. The post is republished with permission and was originally featured on the Special Olympics Project UNIFY blog.
Looking at the aspects that create schools where students are able to express their ideas, engage in meaningful leadership opportunities, and develop a collaborative relationship with the staff to address the needs of both students and teachers is challenging, yet important. One word that is indirectly included in each of those aspects is inclusion. Inclusion can be defined in many ways, each catering to a certain situation. However, there are common characteristics that we can define as being inclusive: students of all abilities, religions, genders, and races are offered equitable opportunities for academic, social, and physical growth; students perceive their peers as valued individuals with unique assets to the school community; and everyone is included in the school's student body, regardless of popularity, athletic ability, or academic achievement.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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?
The study of ethics requires asking "What is right?" and "What is good?" In one form or another, most children ask these questions of themselves and their surroundings on a regular basis. As they mature into adolescents, justice issues—especially those that affect them—become a prominent part of this questioning process. For this reason, we consider ethics a great teaching opportunity.
Post submitted by Nicole Eredics, an elementary educator who has spent more than 15 years working in inclusive classrooms. She is an advocate and has led community support groups. She currently hosts The Inclusive Class radio show on the Talking Special Needs Network on Blog Talk Radio (Friday mornings at 9 a.m. ET). Eredics has developed and discovered many valuable resources for parents, teachers, and schools that focus on the inclusion of special needs children in the classroom. More information can be found on her blog The Inclusive Class.
In recent years, there has been considerable thought and research given to how schools can create inclusive learning environments. Dozens of reference books have been written that recommend inclusive practice, strategies, and solutions. As a result, teachers are becoming more skilled at including children with special needs in the general education classroom.
In any group of young people, you will find a range of physical, cognitive, social, and emotional skills and abilities. No two students have the same strengths and challenges. Classrooms in an inclusive school may have students with a wider range of skills and abilities than in traditional classrooms, but staff and students respect, support, and build on those diverse needs and strengths.
This benefits not just students with special needs; inclusive learning environments prepare all students for citizenship, employment, and further study where they will need the skills and understanding to interact and collaborate with diverse individuals and groups. By preventing young people from experiencing and participating in an inclusive environment, we fail to prepare them for the reality they will face outside of formal schooling.
Despite the rumors, school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about standards. It's about all of them. And more.
In this column, I'll take on the real deal of school improvement—for all schools, not just certain kinds. And for all kids. Because it's not about quick fixes or checking off the instant strategy of the moment. It's about saying, "Yes, and..." not "Yes, but..." no matter what our circumstances are. It's about asking ourselves the best questions.
I am a word snob. I confess. I think words are powerful and beautiful and that word choice matters every day. My dad used to hand out buckets of praise at the dinner table when one of us used "SAT vocabulary." And I loved it.
But sometimes it's the simplest words that matter most. Like "each." As in, "each child, in each school, in each community deserves to be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged." Too often in education and politics we use a word like "all" and actually mean "some." Or "most." Or "kids like mine." You can't get away with that with a beautiful little word like "each."
This article has been reposted with permission from William H. Hughes and the Cascade Matters Blog. Hughes has worked in education for 34 years as a teacher, principal, and superintendent of schools. He has served as superintendent of the Greendale School District in Greendale, Wisc., for the past 15 years. Greendale Schools is ranked as the top school district in the Milwaukee metro area. It is known for high student achievement, inclusive schools, and engagement and consistently has student achievement that is beyond what community demographics would predict. He is a partner with Cascade Educational Consultants, based in Bellingham, Wash., and teaches educational leadership classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
School leaders realize that inclusive schools engage all children and youth, resulting in higher student achievement. That leads to success post high school and beyond. We are looking for inclusive schools.
We have all seen schools that are struggling to be inclusive. Places where adults and youth and students with and without disabilities all seem disconnected. Places where there are clear differences or where there are distinguished characteristics between general and special education programs—students in isolated areas of the schoolhouse, a lack of attention to participation by students with disabilities in school programs and classes, or lack of respect for their well-being.
Post submitted by Evan Heller, a youth advocate and leader for Special Olympics who currently serves on both the National and Massachusetts State Youth Activation Committees. He also participates with Special Olympics as the head coach for a unified soccer team and a unified football team, as well as an assistant coach for bowling and track and field. Additionally, Heller has participated in numerous local and national conferences about youth leadership and activation. This fall he will begin his freshman year of college at University of Massachusetts–Amherst. Listen to Heller discuss inclusive learning environments on the Whole Child Podcast.
The following is a reflection on Heller's recent experience as a facilitator at whole child partner National School Climate Center's 2011 National School Climate Summer Institute, which helps support educators in developing school climates that promote safe, caring, and civil schools.
I was recently invited to help emcee and facilitate the 2011 National School Climate Summer Institute, held at John Jay College in New York City, along with two of my youth peers. Despite the plethora of e-mails I received in the week leading up to the institute, I arrived with little knowledge of what would be coming and even less knowledge of how, as a youth, I would be received by an audience primarily consisting of high-level administrators and educators. At the beginning of the first day of the institute, I was handed a name tag that read, "Evan Heller—Youth Leader." Well, I guess that sums me up?