BLOG: Creating an Inclusive School: Action Items for Administrators

Creating an Inclusive School: Action Items for Administrators


A sense of belonging is a basic human need that drives beliefs and behaviors, whether that’s in school, at home, while rooting for a school team, or the hundreds of other thoughts and actions we have throughout out daily existence. Currently having a middle schooler at home with daily discussions of belonging has also only intensified my thoughts on the subject.


This need to be part of something larger than ourselves has fueled the actions of education leaders across the country and here in Montgomery the last three school years in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. You sought out students and, in some cases, established systems to feed them during the first days of school closures. You developed entirely new safety procedures and created entirely new curricula, delivering it through virtual, hybrid, and in-person learning during the 2020-2021 school year. It wasn’t pretty and plenty of gaps in student learning was revealed everywhere, but the effort to serve was evident.


Behind these plans and actions was the desire to make sure all students were included by starting with their most basic needs. The inclusionary puzzle became more complicated when schools rose above those must-have necessities and up Maslow’s Hierarchy from basic to psychological to self-fulfilling needs. The following questions likely arose in your school or schools:


·      How do we teach students who don’t show up or only tune into class once-in-a-while?

·      How can I reach students who lack access to adequate technology for their learning?

·      My staff is burned out from creating both in-person and distance learning. How can I give them another district initiative when they are barely hanging on? 


As school districts stepped back and attempted to take a collective breath and reflect on all that has occurred in the last 20 months, how can schools make sure students, staff, and leaders feel connected to each other, their learning, and the greater community? However this happens, it will take greater intentionality concentrating on those areas of need which are consistent and always evolving. The first step is to define what a truly inclusive school means today versus what it meant in the past.


What Is an Inclusive School?


While inclusive school settings are sometimes defined as classrooms where general education and special education students do most of their learning together, I use it here in the broader sense to mean ensuring all students, especially underrepresented or marginalized students, feel like they belong—whether that’s in the choir, higher-level courses, or student government.


Inclusive schools not only consider the race, gender, and economics of students but also examine ways in which marginalized students may be excluded from certain opportunities (and consider ways to address the issue). For instance, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection, across the country Black students are underrepresented in programming that provides learning opportunities outside a typical classroom at every level. In elementary school, Black students are 16% of the student population, but only 9% are enrolled in Gifted and Talented programs. In middle schools, Black students make up 10% of algebra classes even though they are 15% of middle schoolers. At the high school level, just 9% of Black students take one advanced placement class even though they remain 15% of the student population.


Couple these sobering statistics with the disproportionality of Black students that end up in remedial programs (they make up 56% of college remedial courses according to one report) or worse suspended from school (almost twice the rate of their student population) and public schools intentional or unwittingly lay the foundation for widespread exclusion of Black students. According to 2017 data from the federal Civil Rights Data Collection, Black students made up 79% of school population and made up 94% of in-school suspensions and 95% of out-of-school suspensions in Montgomery Public Schools. This disproportionality also occurs in other Black majority districts like New York City and Atlanta.


School Leader Actions Leading to Greater Inclusion


School leaders need to take the time to consider or reconsider why exclusion happens and what are the barriers to Black students or any identity groups may face at school. How do you ensure all students are supported in all learning environments regardless of abilities, native language, gender or sexuality?


Instead of accepting such exclusionary practices as a norm, schools would become more inclusive if they were to, not only, discuss and question disproportionalities, but to intentionally plan and follow through on adult actions that could ensure more representative learnings and opportunities. Talking is nice, acting on the data is more effective.


Ensuring you have an inclusive school doesn’t have to be a complicated or a time-consuming endeavor. It can start simply with asking staff, students, and families these straightforward questions through free or paid survey programs. (Something, you know, I am fond of.) Questions should include the following:


·      Do you feel like you belong in school?

·      If so, what actions by teachers, support staff, and leaders have made you feel this way?

·      If not, what actions by teachers, support staff, and leaders have made you feel this way?

·      Have there been opportunities for you to share a challenge or a problem with a teacher, colleague, or supervisor?

·      Were you provided with solutions, suggestions, and support for the challenge?

·      What happens when you feel lost or alone at school? At home?

·      What could we do at school to make it a happy and healthy place where all students learn?


The answers to these questions are likely to reveal how, why, and where children and adults feel like they belong (or don’t). It will also highlight the exclusion some students may feel and hopefully sets the stage for you to ensure strong connections from student to teacher to leader.


Unfortunately, inclusionary efforts can be confounded by the seemingly endless tasks schools must answer to simultaneously—improving connectivity, providing greater flexibility in pace and path in learning environments, and meeting the varied learning needs of students with a wide range of backgrounds. It can be confusing for schools when it comes to starting and maintaining the seemingly impossible: creating atmospheres where all children will learn and excel, while stemming the tide of never-ending initiatives.


But, once you have your answers to how students, staff, and families feel, how do schools create inclusionary practices? First, you’ll be able to establish what it means to be included.  You may be surprised how children and adults express the extent of how included they feel, especially if you leave survey responses open-ended. In schools I have led and have consulted in, leaders from across the country shared the following student and staff replies when asked about belongingness:


·      “I feel welcome at school because teachers know my name.”

·      “Staff smile at me and say good morning.”

·      “If I bring a problem to a teacher, they try to help me solve it.”

·      “When I called the principal for help, she dropped what she was doing and gave me time to express concerns and offered possible solutions.”

·      “My principal creates norms and not only follows them, but models them for others.”


The funds are out there to improve infrastructure, build staffing to more appropriate levels, and increase technological advances that are necessary for teaching and learning. This is all well and good, but just as effective—if not more so—are the low-cost changes that can be made to bolster social and emotional well-being and create environments of inspiration, throughout districts. Creating an inclusive school leads to increased attendance, engagement and ultimately learning and growth for all.

Please consider the following prompts for discussion below:

  • How do we provide the means for all students to be successful, especially those students who feel or act like failures academically, socially or emotionally?
  • Do teachers and school leaders provide a clean slate for students who make mistakes and are in need of disciplinary measures?
  • Are disagreements and grievances handled with concern allowing all staff to feel safe and heard when discussions/meetings become personal? When leaders complain of retaliation from their job alikes or supervisors, is this handled respectfully and restoratively even if discipline is necessary?
  • Have you surveyed staff or students about belongingness? If so, what were the results and what did surveys reveal anything surprising or unusual? If you haven't yet surveyed students or staff, do you think you will soon? Why or why not?

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