Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource
A mixed class of students, some with special needs, learn music in the Coronado Unified School District.

Some California school districts – including San Francisco Unified and Los Angeles Unified – are part of a nationwide initiative that seeks to increase awareness of students with disabilities and of the importance of creating a school environment where every student feels included.

Earmarked as the first week in December, “Inclusive Schools Week” was originally developed under a U.S. Department of Education grant from the Office of Special Education. The event is led by the Inclusive Schools Network, a global online organization that promotes inclusive educational practices and provides educational resources for schools and families. The Inclusive Schools Network was created by the Education Development Center and the Urban Collaborative and is now sponsored by Stetson & Associates, an education consulting firm.

Cathy Giardina, an associate with Stetson & Associates, said the initiative started in 2001 as a commitment to help more schools, parents and teachers engage in intentional activities and discussions on inclusion.

“We really believe it’s not so much, ‘Oh we don’t want to do this,’ but how do we do this?” she said. “So that’s why we think it’s important to have the network of shared resources and make sure every child has the same opportunities to participate. Children learn in different ways, so it’s about how do we meet the needs without all the labels. The needs of students drives the service.”

Los Angeles Unified and San Francisco Unified are among the state’s most active participants. San Francisco Unified has taken part in Inclusive Schools Week for the past three years, and Los Angeles Unified for the past two years. Officials from both districts said schools have participated individually in previous years, but that has now expanded to the districts inviting all schools to take part. In San Francisco Unified, every school is expected to have at least one activity planned, said Laura Savage, the special education ombudsman for the district.

Savage, who is leading the effort for the second time this year, said the week is a time to reiterate the core values of the district, which include ensuring every student, regardless of learning ability, feels welcome.

Although “Inclusive Schools Week” is rooted in special education, Savage said it is also meant to reach all marginalized students, including newly arrived immigrants, English learners and African-Americans. It also allows the district to offer schools access to resources such as sample curricula and social justice guidelines on how to discuss sensitive topics, such as racism and immigration.

“In particular this year, we’ve had a lot of emotions rise up post-election and we have resources around working with different groups, best practices for African-American students, LGBT students and special education students and families,” Savage said.

Savage said the week is also a time when schools can be reflective about their inclusive practices for different types of learners. “How are we making every community member feel welcome at our school sites? What are we doing to reach out to each of our students and let them know they are of value?”

School participation in Inclusive Schools Week ranges from small group activities to schoolwide assemblies. In San Francisco Unified, Galileo Academy of Science and Technology has planned “speed friendship” activities: students meet over their lunch hour for a few minutes at a time with a new student and get acquainted. In Los Angeles Unified, John Liechty Middle School will have morning announcements about famous people with disabilities.

At Commodore Sloat Elementary in San Francisco, students will be asked to read aloud in a different language as a way to foster understanding for the schools 40 percent English learner population, said Nicole Henderson, a special education teacher for 4th- and 5th-graders.

Henderson, who works with students who have mild to moderate disabilities, said encouraging inclusion is one of the reasons she’s a teacher. Three years ago her motivation for going into special education was to help children with disabilities in foster care, she said. For students who don’t have the support at home, schools can help to create the valuable emotional connections they need to grow, Henderson said.

“I think a sense of belonging is something all humans seek,” she said. “In general, we look for opportunities to connect to people and build relationships, and school is where that starts.”

Maria Ricario, a specialist with the L.A. Unified Division of Special Education, said in order to maintain inclusion in the district, communication with parents, students and teachers is a high priority. The division also plans professional development opportunities throughout the year that focus on the strengths and uniqueness of students, rather than highlighting their disabilities.

Beth Kauffman, associate superintendent for the division, said much of inclusion is about demystifying special education and removing the mystery about how to connect with students who have different learning abilities. When they create activities where all students are included, it builds empathy and understanding, she said.

“The social and emotional aspect is extremely important for the students with disabilities to feel included in the school, but it is also important for general education students to get to know students with disabilities,” Kauffman said.

At Mission High School in San Francisco, Rami Aweti, who has taught students with moderate to severe disabilities for seven years, is regarded as a particularly active advocate for special education. He is credited for bringing Best Buddies to Mission High School, a program that strives to build inclusiveness by matching special needs students with peers without learning or developmental disabilities.

Aweti said they have since expanded their inclusiveness efforts to an entire month called Abilities Awareness. It includes presentations from students with varying learning abilities, as well as discussions led by teachers about individualized education programs, or IEPs, the personalized plans required for every child who needs special education.

“Largely my role has been working with students early on to build a narrative so that we can have their peers understand them,” Aweti said. “We reduce the likelihood of that island feeling, so they are not a lonely student among their peers in the classroom. You can find a student included in a classroom physically and not emotionally.”

Aweti gives out surveys at the end of the month, and the results show that “students get it,” he said. “People are using better language and when it comes to sensitivity, you see them self-correct and you know there is this empathy,” he said.

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