Dr. Lisa Dieker is a Professor and Lockheed Martin Eminent Scholar at the University of Central Florida. She received her undergraduate and master’s degree from Eastern Illinois University and her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. Her primary area of research focuses on collaboration between general and special education at the secondary level with a specific interest in the unique opportunities that exist in urban schools in the areas of mathematics and science. She also has a passion for how technology and specifically virtual classrooms can be used to impact teacher preparation As the Lockheed MartinEminent Scholar, she works collaboratively with outstanding UCF faculty in mathematics and science to Direct the Lockheed Martin/UCF Mathematics and Science Academy. Dr. Dieker is also the coordinator of the Ph.D. program in special education.  This program, during her tenure and in collaboration with her colleagues in special education, has graduated 50 new scholars.  Twelve are students with disabilities and twenty come from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. She has published numerous articles focused on interdisciplinary collaboration. She is sought out regularly to provide national and international keynote addresses. She serves in numerous leadership roles including serving on the board of the Council for Exceptional Education Teacher Education Division where she was selected by the Council for Exceptional Children as the Child Advocate Network (CAN) coordinator of the year.  She also has been the editor and associate editor for two international journals and is currently the Associate Editor of Teaching Exceptional Children.

Selma Powell is a doctoral candidate at the University of Central Florida. She received her undergraduate and master’s degree from the University of South Florida. Her dissertation research focus is on developmentally appropriate use of mathematics applications for iPads in early childhood classrooms. Additionally, she is committed to advocacy for children with special needs and their families. In November of 2011, she was recognized by the Council for Exceptional Children, Division of Early Childhood, as the recipient of the J. David Sexton Doctoral Student Award for her contributions to these children and families. Selma Powell has published three articles and has presented at numerous national and state conferences. Within the university, Selma Powell has held leadership positions with the Council for Exceptional Children student chapter, as well as the Association for Doctoral Students in Exceptional Education. For the past two and a half years, she has worked as the assistant to the associate editor of Teaching Exceptional Children.

To include or not to include? That is the question every parent has to struggle with as his or her child progresses through the school; issues related to placement options for students with disabilities are challenging. This question is a complex one for parents, teachers, administrators, and even students to answer, as grade point averages become more and more important for college admissions or future career options.  Therefore, what is the least restrictive environment for all students?  That is a question that becomes even more complex as students enter middle and high school.

As an educator and a parent of a student with a disability, I (Lisa Dieker) can share that our family has had these same struggles.  Compound the parent role with what both of us (Lisa and Selma) know about secondary schools and we will share some of the reasons the struggle at the secondary level exists.  Many parents struggle with the right balance between their child participating in inclusive settings and closing gaps that might still exist for students as they progress in grade level.  In addition, parents must consider a range of service delivery options when GPAs count and there are few instances of general and special educators teaching together.  Not only are students transforming intellectually, emotionally, sexually, and socially, but teachers’ identities seem to change from foregrounding children to foregrounding discipline knowledge. In this blog, we share what we have seen that works for secondary schools that develop successful inclusive education contexts.

We both have worked with students, families, teachers, and administrators in the roles of special educator, general educator, administrators, and researchers in secondary schools.  We want to celebrate the great secondary schools we have seen that have successfully included students with disabilities to the maximum extent possible and appropriate, a decision we believe can only be made by students with disabilities and their parents/guardians. So what do these successful secondary schools look like?  From visiting hundreds of schools at this level, we have seen common themes to what works.

No Whining Allowed

First and foremost, these schools focus on all students and families as an asset to be embraced, not a problem to be managed.  The overall themes in schools where students were successful come from the states of Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.  One of the themes that emerged from visiting 80 secondary schools was what we simply call “not whining”. Schools that demonstrated this idea exhibited consistency and a focus on what can be done to solve any problem that arises.

Many of the schools we visited had too many students, not enough materials, outdated technology, and not enough teachers.  However, the schools where students were embraced easily in the general education setting seemed to have a core value of focusing on finding a solution for the challenges that individual students encountered.  In these secondary schools, teachers’ lounges and conference rooms were not filled with complaints, but with heartfelt discussions about how to help students and how to effectively work together.  We believe students should have a voice in their education and clearly understand the nature of their disability at this age (my son clearly knows about his Tourette Syndrome and learning disability). As parents think about options in collaboration with their secondary students , they should look for schools that fully embrace their child.  We have found many secondary schools that have great teachers, but are encased in negativity outside those teachers’ classrooms.  The school climate impacts how students see themselves, how others view them, and how readily the organizational structures can bend and adapt to individual needs.

Keep in mind that as students enter secondary school, the teachers move into being content experts.  We have seen thousands of content experts who are very student-centered but, much like a college experience, many teachers’ first job is to teach their content expertise to the over 100 students that enter their classroom each day.  The amount of teacher/student communication, particularly at the secondary level, decreases since students go from one teacher to as many as 6 or 12, depending on if co-teaching occurs or there is paraprofessional support in the classroom.

Consistency and Flexibility

The second theme that emerged in the successful inclusive education schools we visited was that they demonstrated a culture of consistency and flexibility to ensure the needs of students with disabilities were met.  These two terms, consistent and flexible, may seem to be conflicting ideas.  How can an organization be consistent and at the same time, flexible?Secondary schools that embrace all students maintain a level of consistent practice (see Table 1).  Parents can use the list in Table 1 to anticipate the challenges their students may face in experiencing inclusive education at the secondary level.  Teachers or administrators may also find this list useful as they consider how to enhance their current practices for effective inclusion of students with disabilities.

Table 1

List of Consistent Structures in Place in Inclusive Secondary Settings:

  • —  Technology use and adoption:  Schools provided students with disabilities with tools that they were taught to use to meet their unique needs to become successful independent learners.
  • —  Self-advocacy preparation: Students were aware of their disability and how to advocate for their own needs.
  • —  Grading: Grading was discussed across schools and teams as a way to report to parents student progress (e.g., standard-based report cards, portfolios).
  • —  Homework: Teachers coordinated efforts across the school and teams to provide a logical structure to when homework was assigned and are due.
  • —  Teams: Teachers (both general and special education) were aligned by content teams, grade level teams, or Professional Learning Communities to work together towards the success of all students.
  • —  Collaborative teaching: Teachers were in classrooms working together that included special educators, general educators, English as a Second Language teachers, reading specialists, and speech therapists.
  • —  Behavior:  Schools had discussed the need for similar rules and consequences with many using Positive Behavioral Intervention Support Models.
  • —  Active Learning:  Students were not in rows, but actively engaged in cooperative learning or peer support groups.

Overall, helping secondary level students understand who she is and what she needs is as critical as the overall GPA.  Making sure the student is prepared with a strong sense of self and is ready to be successful in life is the real outcome of school.  Inclusive practices are not about where students receive services. If having a reading class in a room with a reading specialist once a day provides a critical skill for success in college, then the services, not the place, are in the true spirit of an inclusive school.  In thinking about challenges related to the inclusion of students with disabilities, one must also consider the nature of secondary schools.  Inclusive school environments are set up in ways that ensure student’s needs are met socially, emotionally, behaviorally and academically. When this is the spirit of the school, an inclusive setting has been cultivated.

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3 Responses to “Reflection on Inclusive Practices at the Secondary Level by Lisa Dieker and Selma Powell”

  1. Jennifer Huber on 1/25/12 12:47 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you for an excellent post. I found it especially helpful because the strategies found in successful inclusive settings were controllable and changeable. I also love the discussion about no whining! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Stan Weser on 2/15/12 10:24 PM US/Eastern

    Love the closing paragraph! How do we continue to initiate and then sustain incusive education in the light of budget cuts, legislative mandates and district policies that place sometimes substantial roadblocks on the path?

  3. Elizabeth Mihocka on 4/4/12 10:22 PM US/Eastern

    I am new to the world of Special Education. I was unaware of the magnitude of challenges both inside and outside of the classroom that affect the student’s educational experience. The entire article was informative and gave solutions to challenges faced by many teachers. The last two lines should inspire educators everywhere.

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