When I was asked to speak to your group, I said yes before I had a chance to think about it. Then, as my panic set in (What have I done?!?!) I kept asking myself why you'd want to hear ME. After all, I'm not an "expert", I'm just a principal going to work each day and doing my job in a small town in northern Michigan. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I do have a story to tell because it's the story of regular people struggling to make a difference. And it's the JOURNEY that's so fascinating! Someone wise once said we are defined by our stories, so let me share the story of AuSable Primary's journey with you.
Let me start by telling you about our district. We are a district that covers approximately 525 square miles in northern Michigan. We have about 2100 students K-12, 65% of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch, with around 14% labeled special education students. I tell you this only to help you understand the context of my story: we are a small, rural school district that is land rich but resource poor. I had no intention of becoming a principalEVER! I had taught at the elementary level before having my daughters, and then had stayed home for six years to raise them. I had recently been working part time at the local community college, and was enjoying the balance in my life. But then I received the phone call that changed my life. It was August and the school district to the north was frustrated in their search for a principal. They had had a series of unfortunate circumstances, but had not been able to find someone they were happy with. They were asking me to consider applying. To make this part of the story very short, I took the job. And this is where the real story begins.
As our friend Snoopy might say, it was a dark and stormy night! It truly was a dark time for my building. We were terribly overcrowded, with 650 students jammed into a building built for probably 500. We had already tried to pass one bond issue to build a new building, and we would try six more times before we had success. Because I came to this principal thing in such a round-about way, I had no clue about the "right" way to do things. I didn't know much but I DID know that things didn't feel right. For example, there was total pull-out for special education students, resulting in a lot of isolation. The most severely impaired students attended center programs at the ISD 18 miles away or in other districts. The regular classroom teachers didn't seem responsible for the special needs kids in fact, no one owned any of the challenges our building presented. It seemed like all I was doing was dealing with discipline. Every infraction, big or small, got sent to me to 'FIX'. Like a fireman, I felt all I did was put out fires! I very quickly got the idea that the total climate of our building was SICK. This really hit home when a group of teachers filed a grievance to exclude the paraprofessionals from the staff lounge. Technically the contract did say the teachers were entitled to a teachers' lounge but come on! Wow! How could the staff even begin to think about including kids when they felt isolated and divided themselves?
There just had to be a solution! I just wanted to wave my magic wand and make change happenbut change is a slow process!
So we beganWe started with discipline since that was the most obvious problem. We formed a small study group, calling ourselves "Quality Schools" since we started by reading William Glasser's Quality Schools as a beginning focal point. Our dialogue probed deeply into why our building was having its problems, and I admit it was discouraging at first. It was shocking to reveal what people really believed about kids. We understood that we needed to get to the root of our beliefs, and what we saw there was simply fear.
We began experimenting with different kinds of support. People in our small circle of Quality Schools backed each other up and planned together. We wanted to do more inclusion but just really didn't know where to begin. So we just started to do it! After all, the journey begins with the first step! We started phasing out the categorical room and started convincing parents to keep their children in out building. We did this by starting with the parents whom we had formed relationships with since their children were preschoolers. They TRUSTED us so we started there.
We knew we didn't know enough so we did some visits to school that claimed to be doing inclusion. But what we found was that their definition of "inclusion" often looked like "mainstreaming" to us. We weren't satisfied with that; our definition meant a total belonging, it meant being included in all ways. So, we had to invent it ourselves!
One of the things I realized from the start was that key people made the difference. I looked around and counted my blessings. I was so lucky to have a very special speech therapist and a special education teacher who were 100% with me. Together we forged a bond of commitment to our beliefs.
About this time we had our first really tough "move in". This child was severely autistic with very challenging behaviors. But his parents wanted to include him and we were willing to try. I knew we needed help. That was when we first met Jill England. Our ISD knew of her and sent her our way. We learned a lot from her, and she gave us lots of encouragement (assuring us that we were on the right track and weren't crazy in our thinking) but it still wasn't enough! Meanwhile, the behavior problems were continuing, although the minor problems were beginning to get under control. When I had a student come in and rip my office apart in a rage, I just kept thinking I hadn't asked the right personsurely someone should be able to help us with all of our concerns. If only FIA, CMH, the courts, the ISD So finally, I consulted with a friend of mine from Seattle. He was a school social worker who had extensive experience with severe behaviors AND special education issues. He told us the words that rocked our world: NOBODY'S COMING! What?!?! Well, that was the turning point. We knew then that the burden was on our shoulders. We knew that we had to figure this out for ourselves.
So we struggled on. We tried some things that worked, and some things that failed. We kept learning and asking questions. Most days, the questions far outweighed the answers! But mostly we became tighter and tighter as a team. We knew we had turned the corner when the first of the teachers asked if they could have special education children assigned to their class. They saw the benefit of having the support teachers coming in to co-teach. We began to learn from each other, and our confidence grew.
And thenfinally, after 7 tries, we passed our bond issue and we were in the midst of planning for a new building. The new building would be a preschool through 2nd grade building, and Grayling Elementary would remain a 3rd 5th grade building. Each would have its own principal, and I would be going to the new building. So we began to plan. The first question asked was Who is Coming With Me? It was time to really get down to the question of what each person believed about belonging, and all kids can learn, and accepting differences. There were several teachers who transferred to a higher grade, a couple retirements, but most threw their hat in with me. Our new configuration would give us a chance to focus on a developmental, nurturing atmosphere where individual differences were embraced.
The spring before we moved into our new building, I decided we needed a retreat. The saying goes that sometimes you have to go away to find yourself so we went to a resort close by where we could have good food and a relaxing atmosphere. There, we put the stress and tension of daily school life to the side and did some good thinking and problem solving. Our retreat truly was the birth of our new staff. First we spent time grieving the fact that no one was coming. Then we pulled ourselves together and began to plan for what came next. We accomplished seven things. 1. We revisited our beliefs (lots of deep, probing dialogue); 2. We abandoned our boundaries and limits; 3. We listed the support we did have; 4. We listed our needs; 5. We developed a school improvement plan, a Title I plan, and a North Central Accreditation plant that was all one plan; 6. We created the crisis intervention team (to remove the confrontive and emotional aspects of behavior disruptions; we understood that behavior was communication); 7. We divided the specialists up and assigned one per teacher. Bur mostly we came away from the weekend with the firm belief that ALL OUR KIDS BELONG TO ALL OF US.
In subsequent years, we have continued to have an annual retreat. We use this as our opportunity to tweak what we're doing and share big ideas. We've invented block planning, inclusion planning, sensory group, and Assembly. We've improved the Child Study process, and assigned case manager to every high needs child in our school. The staff now has ownership of our challenges, and works together to improve the experience that every child has in our school. Just like Don Quixote, we are on a quest! We don't think this is an impossible dream!
So here we are today. It is a place where everyone belongs. Our building is filled with light and inviting spaces where people feel welcome to gather. We use color and shapes to define areas, and there are no "pull-out" rooms. In fact, all the specialists share one office space, where they communicate and collaborate daily.
We use a balanced literacy approach in our building.
All staff (teachers, specialists, and parapros) are trained in
guided reading and other literacy strategies, and all assist in
the instruction of language arts.
We have learned so much from each other. An example of this is that when a teacher plans a lesson to build oral language, the speech therapist whose entire training is based on speaking and listening, is right there to assist and plan with. She is there to model appropriate strategies to the whole class or to a small group. And thus, we have built capacity throughout the building.
In 1999, we joined the Whole Schooling Consortium out
of Wayne State University to help us further examine our practice.
That's been fun and we've learned a lot.
In summary, I feel that the three essential elements for successful inclusion are flexibility, creativity, and perseverance. Without these attitude traits, you are likely to fail. You need administrative support. The building principal must believe that inclusion is worth the effort. It also helps if there is at least one other person "higher up" to support you in your endeavors. You need teamwork within the school and beyond the school. By building a team of believers, supporting one another, and learning from one another, you create a synergy through the diversity of expertise and talents. But you must also link with community agencies to provide the support for parents and families needed. And you need planning time. Be creative, flexible and persistent when it comes to figuring out ways to allow teachers and support staff to work together to plan. It keeps the communication flowing. We use three kinds of planning time: our yearly retreat for major planning and problem solving, grade level planning for sharing concerns and brainstorming solutions with peers, and inclusion planning for meeting regularly with any specialist that comes to your classroom to plan lessons and facilitate true inclusion.
I believe that inclusion is harder, that it takes more time, and utilizes more funds and resourcesbut it's worth it! I can't imagine a school without every one of our wonderful children; each contributes to our school community in his or her unique way, and makes all of us richer for the experience. We continue to hold two guiding beliefs: All of our kids belong to all of us; and Nobody's coming!
In closing, I want to emphasize that we are a work in
progress. I hope we are never completely finished! We need to
continue to learn and grow and to look deep in our hearts to make
a difference for all children. My friend said to me just the
other day: "THE JOURNEY IS FAITH BASED". And I guess
that's what it's all about.