A Catalyst for Whole School Improvement

William Henderson, Principal, O'Hearn Elementary School
Boston Public Schools
February 16, 2001

Like many districts across the country, the Boston Public School System has developed a Whole School Improvement Plan. The purpose of this plan is to help schools organize themselves to improve the quality of teaching and learning. At the Patrick O'Hearn Elementary School, inclusion of students with disabilities has served as an impetus for change that has benefited all students. We think that our story may be helpful to educators in other schools and has important messages for how school reform can occur for all children.


In the spring of 1989, the Boston School Committee ruled that the O'Hearn Elementary School would become an inclusive school. Up until that point, there was no school in the city where students with disabilities such as autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and significant developmental delays could learn in classrooms at every grade level with their non-disabled peers. Inclusion started in the kindergarten classrooms of the O'Hearn that September with a commitment to phase up through the other grades.

Experiences that first year were not all positive. The standardized test scores of the grade 1-5 students were below the national average and near the bottom of test scores in the city. There were frequent behavior problems in the upper grades resulting in many office referrals. There were also vacancies at every grade level because not enough parents had selected the O'Hearn opting to send their children to other schools under the district's controlled choice plan. Although the kindergarten students seemed to have made much progress in the inclusive classrooms, there were concerns about moving the inclusion up through the other grades.

Today, just over ten years later, the picture is dramatically different. Currently the O'Hearn serves 220 students from early childhood through grade 5. The students reflect the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the city. 25% of the students have a disability. Most of the students come from families that qualify for free or reduced lunches. For the past 5 years, standardized test scores have been above the national average and near the top in the city, and behavior problems have diminished with generally good student cooperation. There are now waiting lists to enter the school under the controlled choice plan.

How did this transformation occur? Staff and parents at the O'Hearn knew that inclusion could not occur in a vacuum. In order to be good inclusion, there had to be an effective school for all students. At that time though, Boston had no blueprint to follow for whole school change, so most energies at the O'Hearn stayed focused on the inclusion. These efforts to figure out how to help include students with disabilities in classrooms with their nondisabled peers actually served to mobilize the entire school community to develop a better school for all kids. At the O'Hearn therefore, inclusion became the catalyst for whole school improvement.

Boston now has a Whole School Improvement Plan. The six components of this plan are Instructional Focus, Looking at Student Work, Professional Development, Best Practices, Resources, and Family / Community Involvement. What follows is a description of some of the ways that inclusion at the O'Hearn has served to jumpstart efforts at improvements in each of these areas in ways that have benefited all students.

1) Instructional Focus

Inclusion was initiated at the O'Hearn as a result of parent advocacy and a Boston School Committee decree. What this meant for the students who were already at the school and what this meant for the students without disabilities was not clear. A mission statement needed to be crafted. Staff, parents, and students were all encouraged to contribute. What emerged early on was the conviction that the O'Hearn needed to be a good school for all its students.

This commitment is now reflected in the school's mission statement: "The mission of the O'Hearn is to help all students learn and succeed. Students involved in general education; students with mild, moderate, and severe disabilities; and students considered talented and gifted learn together and from each other." This mission is proclaimed in all school literature, and it is regularly articulated by staff, family members, and the students themselves.

After determining who the school was for, the next step was to decide what all the students would do. Boston has established citywide learning standards. These are based on the state's curriculum frameworks. The O'Hearn therefore, agreed to follow the same designated curriculum but committed to make adaptations as needed for students whose disabilities warrant it. The arts and technology were also identified as priorities to help all students with such varying abilities to demonstrate progress around the standards.

As in most Boston schools, the O'Hearn has chosen the instructional focus of literacy. The school's goal is that students will read and write at or above grade level or that they will achieve the objectives stipulated in their Individual Education Plans. The entire staff (regular educators, special educators, and therapists) along with parent leaders have participated in extensive training on literacy. Many resources, coaching, and supports have been provided. Including students with significant disabilities in literacy has also meant that specialized equipment and varied instructional techniques are routinely used in all classrooms.

The time and energy that were expended to craft a mission statement that includes students with disabilities has made the O'Hearn stronger in its commitment to help all students achieve. Having students with disabilities participate in the general curriculum and instructional focus of literacy, sometimes with major adaptations, has inspired others to work harder for objectives that are seemingly more easily attainable. Using the arts and technology throughout the curriculum along with specialized equipment and instruction in all classrooms has embellished the curriculum in a way that provides more opportunities for all students to learn and succeed.

2) Looking at Student Work

All teachers at the O'Hearn meet every other week to look at student work. Some time is spent looking at standardized or district developed tests, but most time is dedicated to examining samples taken from their writing regular class work. Because of the focus on literacy, samples of students' writing is frequently examined. Their writing is rated according to scoring rubrics developed by the district.

Initially teachers only brought samples of work that had already been corrected and revised, so these were either above or relatively close to the benchmarks of their grades. Being an inclusive school, some teachers also started sharing samples of related assignments from students with significant disabilities. This loosened up the conversations. Teachers felt comfortable discussing these students' needs and the creative strategies that they had used to help them produce.

This led to a decision to bring samples from students representing a range of performance levels to each student work session and to examine just first drafts which are a truer indication of what students know and are able to do. Teachers did become more comfortable talking frankly about students' needs. They now spend more and more time discussing instructional strategies that can help student's progress. Some of the most creative strategies are those that are used with students with disabilities. Sharing these innovative practices has stimulated teachers to try many different ways to help other students who are not working up to standards.

3) Professional Development

Professional development is frequently cited as essential for those working with students who have disabilities. Clearly there is much to learn about the nature of specific physical and mental impairments. What is different though about inclusion is the location for instruction. Educators who work in inclusive classrooms need to know about the intricacies of the general curriculum as well as the unique issues related to disabilities.

At the O'Hearn, general education teachers, special education teachers, therapists, and arts teachers have all spent considerable professional development time on the instructional focus of literacy. Together they are studying strategies for teaching reading and writing identified by the district that have proven effective for learners at specific grade levels. Many of these strategies are also appropriate for and are used regularly with students with disabilities. For others, adaptations involving accommodations or modifications are necessary and appropriate strategies for these must also be investigated.

Having all educators participate in most of the same professional development, has definitely deepened the levels of conversations at the O'Hearn. Educators with such a range of expertise have varying insights, which have proven beneficial to their colleagues. In addition to the time that is spent at in-service workshops and trainings, on-site coaching, and off-site visits, professional development occurs regularly during common planning periods. Teachers from varying grade levels and certification areas meet and discuss ways of improving teaching and learning for the students with whom they work. Many innovative strategies for teaching reading and writing that can be used with a range of students have been developed as a result of this rich networking.

4) Best Practices

There is no formula for teaching students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms. There are however, guiding principles made necessary by inclusion. These are collaboration and adaptation. Combined with instructional best practices related to curriculum and disability issues, collaboration and adaptation are powerful practices, which improve teaching and learning for all.

Historically, teaching has been a relatively isolated profession. Most teachers teach students on their own apart from their colleagues. Inclusion requires that supports and services be provided in the general education classrooms. The personnel supports most commonly available are special education teachers, therapists, and paraprofessionals.

Collaborating with other adults in classrooms changes the dynamics of instruction. In some situations, one adult assumes responsibility for most of the class and another adult for just a few of the students. In other situations, the adults share and switch-off with their responsibilities. In either scenario, it is critical that the professionals communicate regularly and appropriately before, during, and after lessons. Finding the time and best ways to do this are challenging. However, good inclusion for students will not be successful unless there is also good inclusion / cooperation among professionals.

At the O'Hearn, during the literacy block, sometimes adults and children work on the same tasks together and sometimes they are divided into groups or work as individuals. During a read aloud session, a general education teacher might be reading a book out loud to the entire class while a paraprofessional is sitting with one student or moving around to help focus a few others. During guided reading, a general education teacher might be with one group, a special education with another group, and a paraprofessional checking the work of those working independently. Speech therapist and occupational therapists also go into classrooms at designated times during the literacy block to facilitate oral communication and to assist with writing. The collaboration of these various professionals has definitely expanded the variety of instructional supports used to help all O'Hearn students improve in literacy.

There are many effective instructional practices that are used regularly with students who have no special needs that also work well with some students who have disabilities. There are times though that adaptations will be necessary. At the O'Hearn during literacy for example, some students need accommodations such as books on cassette, assistive technology, or Braille to access and respond to print. Other students need modifications that change the level of reading or writing such as simplified versions of stories, simplified written responses, artistic depictions, or gestures. Many of these adaptations that have been made available as part of the specialized instruction in the O'Hearn's inclusive classrooms have also proved beneficial to students without disabilities.

For example, all students at the O'Hearn are currently involved with Writer's Workshop. Writer's Workshop provides a structured opportunity for students to express their thoughts in writing about a topic that they have selected or their teacher has suggested. After a brief mini-lesson with the whole class, students engage in writing. Some of the slant boards and special pens and markers that are necessary for students with fine motor skill difficulties have assisted those with no such issues. Some of the special soft ware programs that show pictures or facilitate spelling for students with learning disabilities or cognitive delays have benefited others. Some of the strategies used by teachers to stimulate students with emotional disorders have sparked others. And some of the direct, even hand-over-hand techniques used by teachers with students with significant disabilities have definitely inspired others. At the end of each Writers Workshop session there is always some time for a few students to share their work. This provides an opportunity to highlight strengths and possible areas of improvement as well as to foster mutual respect and a sense of community.

5) Resources

Personnel costs are the single largest budget item in education. Most districts use formulae related to class size to determine the actual number of teacher and paraprofessionals. In inclusive schools, the formulae are more complicated because students with disabilities are spread throughout the building rather than being assigned to separate classrooms. Schools promoting inclusion therefore, have to use more creativity for determining appropriate staffing.

At the O'Hearn, an effort has been made to first calculate what the staffing costs for students with disabilities would have been if they were not included. For example, there is a school nearby that serves students with autism in separate classes. Because that school allocates 1 teacher and 2 paraprofessionals for each class with 6 students, approximately $22,000 is spent per pupil on staffing costs. (This figure factors average salaries plus benefits. So for every student with autism who might have attended that other school, the O'Hearn receives an equivalent amount of funds. Students with autism have varying needs and some have come from private placements, which are significantly more expensive so the figures will vary somewhat. This same calculation process is used for students with other disabilities. After determining what it would have cost in teacher / paraprofessional costs if students were not included, the school then advocates for the same allocation of funds.

The next step is to add up the total amount that would have been spent on all students with disabilities if they had attended separate classrooms. After determining this total figure, the school community can then decide the total number of special education teachers and paraprofessionals that will be hired. Teachers are obviously more expensive than paraprofessionals. The actual numbers and deployment of each will depend on the number of students with disabilities and the nature of their needs. Therapists will also be needed in inclusive schools. Their categories and numbers should be determined the same way as for programs that are not inclusive by the services stipulated in students' Individual Education Plans.

Time is another critical resource in all schools. Scheduling in inclusive programs is more complex given the range of services necessary to meet students' diverse needs and the variety of staffing options. At the O'Hearn, priority is given to maximize services and time around the instructional focus of literacy. Schedules are also set to ensure that staff have opportunities to participate in looking at student work and professional development sessions as well as to plan and collaborate with each other. Much creativity is necessary to determine staffing and organize time in inclusive schools. This critical exercise necessary for inclusion has also provided valuable experiences for examining other resources to ensure that they are most effectively used.

6) Family / Community Involvement

When inclusion was initiated at the O'Hearn in 1989, a survey was taken among staff to gain their input on the major areas for improvement. Family involvement was listed as the #1 priority. A small group of parents identified by teachers as potential leaders was organized to strategize ways of involving families more. Because parents of students with disabilities had worked so hard to find a school where their children could be included, their representation on this planning group was strong.

With this new parent support, the O'Hearn opted to join a small number of schools in Boston experimenting with School Based Management. (Eventually School Based Management became mandatory in all Boston schools.) The purpose of School Based Management Councils is for parent and teacher representatives along with the principal to make certain designated decisions concerning a school's programs, personnel, and budget.

It was this council which organized the effort to craft the O'Hearn's mission statement. Job descriptions reflecting the school's inclusion commitment were developed and a personnel sub-committee, which included a parent representative, was formed to hire new staff. The council also solicited and allocated resources to the school's instructional focus on literacy.

As part of this literacy focus, the council decided to promote more reading at home. A reading contract was developed with time expectations for students to read or be read to on a weekly basis. Initial results showed that a higher percentage of students who were reading below grade level and students with disabilities were not participating in the program as regularly. With help from community organizations such as the Institute for Responsive Education and ReadBoston, parent volunteers worked hard to promote greater participation in the home reading program. More books including some books on cassettes were distributed. A book swap program whereby students could exchange books or magazines that they had already read for other material was coordinated by parents. All families of students newly assigned to the school were welcomed by other family members who emphasized the home reading program. Outreach and motivational meetings were also organized by parent leaders for those families not participating regularly. All of these efforts, many of which were organized and implemented by family leaders, definitely helped to improve literacy at the O'Hearn.

Arts at the O'Hearn went through a similar transformation. When the school initiated inclusion in 1989, few staff had experience including students with disabilities. A small grant of state funds was used to enlist the support of Very Special Arts of Massachusetts. This organization provided visiting artists to work with children and offered technical assistance to teachers around including students with and without disabilities. The partnership helped students design artwork and engage in performances that celebrated the school's curriculum and mission.

Arts have developed to be one of the strongest components of the school. Music, dance, the visual arts, and drama are used regularly throughout the curriculum. With support other from arts organizations in Boston including Very Special Arts and the Community Music Center, students have staged many performances. These productions are connected to the curriculum and have elicited strong family involvement. Students have also engaged in community service by taking "the show on the road" to cultural agencies and centers for senior citizens. Not only have the arts been recognized at the O'Hearn for their own quality, but the way that students with disabilities have been included has been very inspiring.


Whole school improvement is an on-going process that requires the concerted energies of the entire school community. Every School will always have strengths as well as areas for improvement. It is important that schools prioritize their growth areas. These growth areas should align with district priorities and the ultimate goal should be to maximize student performance.

Inclusion is an option which is supposed to be the first consideration for students with disabilities. When effectively designed and implemented, inclusion should provide positive learning experiences not only for students with disabilities but also for those without disabilities. In order to achieve this level of success, whole school improvement has to be a priority. At the O'Hearn, in addition to being a goal for all students, inclusion has served as a dynamic catalyst for improvements that have indeed benefited the whole school community.