What Does Inclusion Look Like?

By Melissa Katz, Director, English Learner Supports

The NYC Special Education Collaborative’s mission is to empower schools to develop inclusive education environments. This is an ambitious undertaking given that inclusion is not a teaching strategy, but rather a mindset. In the most basic language, inclusion means any student, regardless of disability, race, language, socio-economic status, etc. can look at a school and say, “That school is for any kid, including a kid like me.”

In order for a school to realize that inclusive vision, educators need to be flexible, creative and resourceful because you never know what needs your students who walk through the door are going to present. We, at the Special Education Collaborative, believe that  one of the best ways in which to support schools’ efforts to be inclusive is to provide leaders and educators with access to best practices in this work. We provide opportunities to observe inclusive schools in action and learn about how they’ve adapted to meet the needs of all their students, including students with disabilities and English language learners (ELLs).

Last month, we visited five schools in the Boston area to garner ideas for creating inclusive education environments. As the Director of ELL Supports,  I was looking to understand what approaches made ELL students feel included within the schools, both academically and socially. I looked for how teachers integrated language and content instruction at the same time, supported ELLs’ access to grade-level content, and built classrooms in which all students felt like they belonged. Here are my findings.

Instead of separate grammar lessons, Brooke Charter School Mattapan combined explicit language instruction with culturally responsive content. Students learned about compound sentences and Colin Kaepernick’s protests in the NFL at the same time. One student’s work reads, “Some Americans think he was justified because of the oppression towards people of color, while others burned his jersey.” 

At Curley K-8, a Boston public school located in Jamaica Plain, a Pre-K classroom teacher used visuals to support students’ understanding of pragmatics. In the dominant culture in the US, people are expected to make eye contact with speakers. This concept might be foreign to some students, so this visual aid helps all students understand common classroom expectations of listeners.

At Codman Academy, crews play a large role in offering social support to students and in making sure that all students feel like they belong at the school. Crew time is spent exploring school issues like bullying and current events like the Black Lives Matter movement. Students are able to reflect on how they are feeling, hear from their peers, and think about their own actions moving forward. Older students meet every day for half an hour with their crews, which include one staff advisor and students across multiple grades. In the lower school, each class, like the second grade class featured in the photograph, is considered its own crew.   

At Phoenix Charter Academy Chelsea, one of three Phoenix college preparatory high schools across Massachusetts that specifically seek to enroll students aged 14-22, teachers think critically about how to balance content and language. In this example, a Science teacher provides multiple scaffolds so that newcomer ELLs can access the concept of interspecific vs. intraspecific competition, while also learning more basic vocabulary words like sunlight, food, and fight.

At Match Community Day Charter Public School, a school founded to serve ELLs, teachers take maximum advantage of their wall real estate to offer supports for their students. In this chart, each vocabulary word is accompanied by a picture, in addition to a written definition, to help students who may not be proficient English readers yet.