Inclusive practices reshape special education thinking
The Estacada School District has embraced inclusive practices, placing students served by special services in general education classrooms and adding supports to help them succeed. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
The Clackamas River Elementary kindergarten class worked quietly and diligently at an addition lesson.
Students sat on the floor around teacher Melanie Johnsen. A cheerful boy stood next to her, needing an occasional redirect. A girl leaned over her paper, hair hiding her face, intent on her work. A boy stretched out to get more comfortable while he worked. A girl waved her paper for the teacher's attention. A paraeducator helped two students at a desk in a back corner.
Two students in this Estacada class wouldn’t have been in a general education classroom in the past.
Estacada School District has turned its special services model on its head, attempting to include all students in their peer classrooms no matter their academic, physical or behavioral challenges.
Inclusive practices dovetail with Oregon’s equity focus, as emphasized in the Student Success Act. Research shows inclusive practices benefit all students, and educators say it’s the right thing to do.
But having students with a wide range of abilities and needs in one classroom challenges teachers, concerns parents and creates potential learning disruptions.
Estacada School Board members toured classrooms last month to see how the district’s two-year-old change in philosophy was playing out. Leaders say it’s the chaos you don’t see that shows inclusive practices are working.
Board members saw students with physical disabilities and developmental delays learning skills and interacting with peers. They saw students who have learned to better control their outbursts. They saw differentiated instruction in the general classrooms to meet individual needs.
In the past, Estacada special services students would have been assigned to outside programs or contained classrooms until they could show they could perform in their peer classrooms.
Now Estacada starts with the idea all students belong in their peer classrooms and decides what supports are necessary for children to succeed there. For some, it means extra staff or peer help. For others, it means part of the day learning skills in specialized classrooms. But the goal is always to have students spending as much time with their peers as possible.
Schools with equity-based inclusive education scored higher on state reading and math assignments than comparable schools without, according to a 2016 study. Students with disabilities engaged with all subjects more in inclusive classrooms, and inclusion of students with disabilities produced neutral or positive effects on nondisabled classmates’ outcomes, according to other studies.
West Linn-Wilsonville School District to the south of Portland is one of Oregon’s inclusive practices leaders.
Since 2013, West Linn-Wilsonville has dramatically increased its inclusive rate of students served by special education. The district’s graduation rate for students served by special education has increased faster than the statewide average for all students. In 2018, the district’s special education student graduation rate reached 81.5%, above the state average for all students.
Jennifer Spencer-Iiams, West Linn-Wilsonville assistant superintendent of student services, said their approach “starts with an assumption that every student brings value and a presumption that all students can learn.”
Inclusive practices require important shifts: Decentralizing services. Creating specific and varied lessons plans for students ranging from gifted to developmentally challenged.
West Linn-Wilsonville has learned some big lessons since it started down this path in 2012, Spencer-Iiams said. Districts must develop a common belief system and understanding of what high-quality instruction looks like, she said. Teachers, students and parents must be involved in planning and execution.
And districts need data beyond just graduation rates to check their progress, she said, such as tracking how many students with disabilities are involved in extracurricular activities.
She said the district is seeing benefits for students with and without disabilities. Inclusive practices build empathy and compassion while reducing bullying because students get to know each other, she said.
The Oregon Department of Education flagged Estacada, a district of about 1,700 students southeast of Portland, in 2015 for having too many students on individualized education programs in restrictive classrooms. Having made little progress moving more students into classrooms, Estacada redefined its approach in 2018 to start with all students in general classrooms.
Everyone should feel that they belong in their neighborhood school, Superintendent Ryan Carpenter said. The district made it a financial priority, adding learning specialists and paraeducators.
Carpenter said the district still must do more to support teachers and staff.
Estacada’s teachers need more training, especially around behavior and classroom disruption issues, said Heather Treanor, the Estacada teachers union representative.
The teachers believe in inclusiveness, emphasized Treanor, and they are seeing growth in soft skills such as kindness. But violent outbursts and inappropriate behavior such as a student stripping during class are hard on teachers and students, she said.
“This inclusion model is awesome, but when it doesn’t work for students, we are worried kids are not going to have a positive education experience,” said Treanor, a high school language arts teacher.
Board members said the change was met by some fear and misunderstanding, especially from parents.
Board member Will Johnston said communicating the district’s intentions and policies was key. He also said teachers need to help parents understand the daily events in a class so it doesn’t seem so scary.
During the board’s class visits last month, sometimes a student was pacing or loud. Sometimes a student needed adult assistance. All the children for the most part, though, stayed focused on lessons despite the occasional distractions.
Estacada Middle School Principal Ben Hargrave said students’ forgiveness of their peers’ differences has been refreshing.
“We underestimate the resiliency of our kids,” he said.
He said students sometimes can reach their peers in ways adults can’t, helping them when they are struggling. Hargrave emphasized that the staff has made extra efforts to make sure students feel safe.
River Mill Elementary fifth grader Kayla Marthaller said it felt good to have new kids in the classroom.
“They can help you learn new stuff,” she said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA