In the book Qualities of Effective Teachers by James H. Stronge, he states, “Research has demonstrated that student achievement is higher in classes where instructional time is maximized (see, for example, Taylor et al., 1999; Walberg, 1984). The effective teacher prioritizes instruction, a process that is accomplished partially through allocation of time. One illustration of how effective teachers best use the scarce commodity of time is in smoothly orchestrated classroom transitions; they remain involved with the students during the entire class period from start to finish, allowing for no idle or down time.”
When looking at student instruction at Crestline Elementary, limiting transitions is a key to their success. For a population with over 66% of students receiving free or reduced lunch, 11.7% receiving special education services, and over 26% receiving ELL services, Crestline’s Principal, Bobbi Hite, sums this up pretty clearly when she shared with me her thoughts about supporting all students. By providing support services in the general education classroom, transitions for students are limited, students learn their skills in a consistent setting; making it easier to generalize their learning, and teachers go to students to support the student’s learning; not the other way around.
Of course, change to providing all services in the classroom doesn’t just happen overnight. For the past 9 years, Bobbi has been putting a team of folks together who are committed to inclusive services for students. In building a commitment to inclusion, Crestline staff have weekly meetings to discuss ongoing work that is being done to support students in the general education setting.
One of the staff members who is a crucial part of this team and process is Crestline’s Learning Support Teacher, Melissa Wilson. When you look to find Melissa Wilson or Kelsey Wyre, also a Learning Support Teacher, at Crestline Elementary, you will need a schedule. If you go to find these Learning Support teachers’ classrooms, you have to go to general education classrooms. Melissa and Kelsey share a small office inside the media center. The reason they don’t need a lot of space? They spend the majority of their day supporting students’ access to core curriculum in general education classrooms.
The office is only a small piece of evidence to what Bobbi Hite and staff members at Crestline Elementary have accomplished in a nine-year period. Supporting student access to core curriculum by starting with what the general education teacher has planned goes for any support services within Crestline. The school’s commitment to inclusion continues in the daily practice of all staff members at Crestline and the Inclusion team meets once a week to discuss students, which includes staff members from ELL, Special Education, Title, and Bobbi.
“In a true best practices classroom, we don’t need (or want) to label, track or level anyone. Instead, teachers provide individual work, materials and choices for everyone.” (Best Practice, Bringing Standards to Life in America’s Classroom, Zemelman, Daniels, Hyde 2012)
The Zemelman quote hangs at the top of the Commitment to Inclusion at Crestline. Teachers share a belief that all students have an area where they can be independent. They can be a leader when in the classroom and are working on their strengths in the classroom. Melissa shared with me that in order to embrace these beliefs, knowing the students is key to success in maximizing student learning. In fact, she stated that building relationships and knowing the student is just as important as providing the service.
When Bobbi was starting at the new Crestline building, she wanted to name what inclusion looked like at Crestline so that teams could define how services would look. It all starts with a general belief. Every student should be given access to the general education curriculum in their general education classroom; regardless of a disability.
Bobbi went on to share that with inclusion, all students will have life outside of school. We are short changing students if we don’t give them opportunities to be with their peers. We need to give them opportunities to interact and be in the classroom with their peers. There is no “special education” Safeway.
In the past, all services for students meant that students were pulled out of their general education classroom based on a block schedule and transitioning to different parts of the school. If a student received ELL and Special Education services, they would have to make at least two additional transitions to different parts of the building in their day on top of recess, lunch, and any specialists they had in their schedule. That doesn’t even include if the student also received speech services and/or reading support through Title.
Inclusion services at Crestline started with reading specialists in the classroom, for the daily 5 (structure for reading; read to self, etc. building independence with reading, reading the pictures, words, or retelling the story) and café model (strategies, fluency or comprehension with all the tools within that) created by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser. With support services, reading is all about kids and their individual goals with 1:1 conferring between students and adults for the students to go over their goals.
From the inclusion team focusing on reading services, inclusion was able to grow. Other reasons drove a need for a centralized focus on inclusion. General education teachers need to speak about their own student’s growth during IEP meetings. Staff members agreed that the most qualified educator needed to be teaching the students. In delivering all services are delivered in the classroom, students were no longer leveled or moving based on tracking systems as they had occurred in the past. Parents shared a sense of relief when hearing that their child isn’t being pull from their peer group, identified by labels, or leaving the classroom to get support.
Making the leap to inclusion wasn’t easy. Over the nine years, Crestline has worked through a lot of situations in order to get where they are today, and they will continue to work on their commitment. For students with behaviors it can be difficult. Teachers following through with interventions, being committed to keeping the student in the classroom, being on the same page with support services, and collaboration is key to keeping the student in the class. So, again, collaboration and careful planning with follow through is leading to success for students.
Part of that success comes from building schedules. Teachers work on providing input to Melissa and Bobbi ahead of time in order to set up success for students the following year. Teachers from each grade level sort students for the following year based on criteria (i.e. no more than 3 students with IEPs in a classroom). In June, Bobbi looks over the placements of students, and sees how many classrooms have students with IEPs in order to collaborate with Melissa about meeting student needs.
One need that is noted as ongoing change to support students in their learning as a result of what they have done is making reading and writing services concurrent when teachers can in order to support student growth in both of these areas at that same time. Melissa shared that moving toward literacy blocks with reading and writing can support growth in these skills.
Through collaboration with general education teachers, services for students are driven by what the teacher is doing in the classroom. Math is more defined in providing support services in the general education classroom. Fourth grade currently has the best model for “co-teaching” or inclusion for students during math. Kids are matched up in different learning teams. Teachers are targeting skills with intervention groups during that time while the rest of the class is working in their learning teams. Students ask to work with the teachers during this time. The special education teacher is scaffolding and preloading skills during the targeted groups with some brief planning prior to entering the class. Students join the targeted group based on needs, and the needs might change depending on the skill/concept that is being delivered at the time. In one class the students are working on multi-digit subtraction, while another class is working on fractions. This set up is believed to have the information move from short-term memory into long-term memory.
In speaking of long-term, Melissa’s work is to support teachers who don’t have experience with inclusive practices opportunities see success from the model. By planning, collaborating, delivering services, monitoring progress, and providing feedback on the model, teachers build their understanding of the vision for inclusion that Bobbi set out to create years ago.
There is a Teacher Support team that focuses on students. The team discusses interventions for students who are struggling in their learning. Melissa will pull in students discussed in these meetings during tier 2 interventions when she is working with students with IEPs in classroom. An example of this is seen during a math group where Melissa is instructing five students about the math concept they are focusing on that day. In the group, two students have IEPs, one student has a 504, and two other students have shown a need for this support through data collection and team discussion.
Having other adults in the classroom is not strange to students. When asked, students state that they feel supported. The person in the class is just another adult.
Of course, providing students support in classrooms isn’t easy either. The support staff puts in a lot of work in order to help support the instruction that is occurring in the classroom. Melissa and Kelsey shared that services have to be fluid. Sometimes this means meeting with a student to provide targeted instruction, and other times having them join a targeted group. When entering a classroom, the teacher might be showing CNN news during math. Supporting the student changes. Time for targeted instruction can always be made up. Melissa and Kelsey work to provide access to the instruction. Changing the focus from math to writing, and don’t get too worried about serving math only at the time that it states on a schedule. Access to core curriculum is being there to support the student’s learning by providing instruction, necessary accommodations, making modifications when needed, and continuing to focus on student success. This goes back to Melissa’s statement about building relationships and knowing the student is just as important as providing the service.
Support staff at Crestline are part of the community. By delivering interventions through general education structure to support students, students are feeling that success. When subs are in the building, Melissa has prepared binders for staff to know which students they are working with when they go into classrooms. That way education can be seamless, and the work is sustainable. Staff growth from the support with paras is huge due to teacher modelling and being included in the general education setting. Seeing the general education teacher in action with the students and the content is ongoing job-embedded professional development.
People had to believe in the approach; otherwise Crestline would not be where they are today with inclusion. Not only does a leader have to embrace a belief and share that belief with others, the staff has to create systems that align with that belief. Staff has to develop their understanding of the work that needs to be done in order to carry out that commitment. There has to be time to collaborate and provide feedback on what is occurring through the implementation of that commitment. Overall, everything needs to be student-centered in order to make a change for all students. By maximizing instructional time, limiting transitions, and having support services go to the student, Crestline is defining inclusion.