A High School Principal Steers a Course for Collaboration

by Denyse Doerries, Ph.D.

The following is the second of three interviews with principals who have created collaborative environments that support inclusive educational practices.

Mr. Parke Land is the principal of Lafayette High School in the Williamsburg-James City County School System. He has been the principal for seven years and has led the school to full state accreditation, which includes the special education students making AYP. Lafayette has 1,478 students in grades 9-12. The composition of the student body is fairly diverse, with approximately 13% of the students identified as having a disability, 22% represent minority groups, 30% of the 9th graders read two or more years below grade level, 18-25% of the students come from single-parent homes, and 67% of the students are high achievers. Currently, due to overcrowding, 10 trailers have been added to the school. The need for a third high school is being discussed by the school board.

Question: Research has shown that the principal's leadership is critical for successful inclusive education. Please describe what you are doing to create an environment that fosters success for all students. What has enhanced your awareness of the needs of the special education program?
Response: The principal must have someone within his or her administrative team who knows about IEPs and diploma standards for special education students. You need someone whose knowledge is current to be the guardian of what is needed for special education students. Although I am fairly knowledgeable about the programmatic and legal requirements for special education, I still need an administrator who is an expert in special education or a lead teacher who is willing to speak up to me. Principals need a partner in understanding the legal implications as well as what is best for special education students.

Question: Do you designate one person or administrator to manage all the special education issues?
Response: No, I want all of my administrators to have the experiences of developing IEPs, serving on child study committees, and overseeing the IEP and 504 processes. Therefore, the responsibilities rotate among the assistant principals, with one person designated as being in charge of monitoring students who have 504 plans, for example. Eventually, everyone will have this experience, which will prepare them for leadership in a school of their own. All of the administrators must know what this entails. Special education is as demanding as athletics at the high school level.

In my situation, one of the assistant principals has a great deal of experience in special education and, therefore, works closely with the special education department. This assistant principal helps create schedules, develops collaborative classes, assigns educational assistants, and deals with programmatic issues. However, all administrators evaluate both special education and general education teachers. I want all administrators to have experience across the board. I do not want one administrator "pigeon holed." We all learn from having someone with the expertise in special education. I want the administrative team to learn from each other.

Question: You have mentioned collaborative classes. What kinds of classes are available for students with disabilities? What do those look like?
Response: We have three classes for students with mild/moderate mental retardation. These students participate in a collaboratively taught art class and are mainstreamed for physical education and career and technical classes. They also participate in community work programs. We are planning for another class for students with more severe disabilities next year. Planning is essential if we are to meet student needs.

We offer special education and general education students collaboratively taught classes in English, Social Studies at each grade level and one Science class. There are also collaborative classes in Algebra I. The collaboratively taught classes are led by both a general and a special education teacher who work together to differentiate instruction. However, our special education program offers a range of services from co-taught classes to more traditional pull-out resource classes.

Question: What are the challenges of the co-taught classes?
Response: The primary factor for the success of co-taught classes is time; that is, time for planning. We have not solved the problem of teachers having adequate time for co-planning. The middle school teaming model is perfect for planning, but we do not have that in the high school. We don't have the flexibility to assign blocks of planning time.

The second factor is the match between the general educator and the special educator. The assistant principal negotiates with the general and special education teachers. Based on the teachers' skills, a match is made with the content teachers and the special educators. The assistant principal also takes into consideration the degree of flexibility of the teachers, the students' schedules, and the IEP goals of the students. The assistant principal then works with the curriculum leader or teacher leader to examine the master schedule and plot the classes. This takes a lot of time. It is done twice a year, once each semester. Sometimes this means there are new pairs of co-teachers each semester. Teachers have veto power and can choose not to participate in a co-taught class, but this is very rare because the general education teachers have such deep respect for the special educators, students, and program.

Question: What makes this degree of trust and respect possible?
Response: The teachers believe they will not be out on a limb by themselves; that is, they feel they will get the help they need to support the students. There are always a few teachers who have problems with special education, and they do not participate in this program. However, they are in the minority, and their numbers are dwindling every year. Change is slow, but younger teachers arrive already trained in collaboration and inclusive practices, to some degree.

Question: What did it take to get your school to this level of collaboration?
Response: When I first arrived at Lafayette, we began by overhauling the program options for mainstreamed kids. We had a two-day retreat where all the special education teachers came together to look at service delivery models and rewrite our overall model. They formalized the program, establishing clear guidelines about when to place students into which model (resource, self-contained, or mainstream classes) and who benefits from which option. The general education teachers perceived this new program as a logical decision-making process to meet the needs of special education students. We made it understandable to general educators and then reached out and asked for their help. We told them this is what we can do for you, now we need you to help us.

Most of our special education students participate in general education classes and may have one resource class. For example, we offer a basic Algebra class that is open to both general and special education students and is co-taught. If any student has problems in this class, he or she can go into a more intensive remediation class that is scheduled at the same time. This provides some flexibility for students who may become stuck on a concept and need additional remediation. English 9 has a similar design, with a simultaneous resource class available on an as-needed basis for struggling students. What we have done is create a schedule of classes based on student needs, or a student- driven schedule.

Question: How have the students and community responded to your program?
Response: There is a strong moral fabric that emphasizes acceptance of diversity at Lafayette High School. We look at students as individuals. I think this has been fostered through the faculty modeling such an attitude and through the shared leadership councils that we established. We have a student council, a faculty council, and a parent council. The students on the shared leadership council are hand chosen by the faculty shared leadership council to reflect the overall population of students at Lafayette. The student shared leadership council is composed of 11-12 kids who meet with the principal and three representatives of the faculty shared leadership council on a monthly basis during the school day.

This is the fourth year of the student shared leadership council, and the students have really made an impact. Their pictures are posted so that other students can recognize them and bring issues to them to be brought to the principal and staff council. The students on the council decide what issue(s) they want to take on each year. This past year they chose the issue of becoming more tolerant of individual differences. This was based on the students' discussions with other students who talked about the cliquishness in the school. It took about four months for the council to decide that each one of them would reach out to other groups by sitting at lunch with students with whom they would not ordinarily sit. The student council also established forums at lunch to allow for student discussions on controversial issues. The school saw decisions being made with the help of this student council that valued inclusivity. The philosophy - every student counts - permeates the meetings of the faculty, student, and parent councils.

Question: What does professional development look like in your school?
Response: Each department decides on its professional development goals and activities. I have decentralized the funds by dividing them among the departments to be distributed to the teachers. I did this as a show of faith and trust that the teachers know what they need. Of course, there are also schoolwide professional development activities such as the literacy program that connects with individual and schoolwide needs.

Currently, we are working on a year-long reading-to-learn and writing-to-learn professional development goal based on the recommendation of the faculty professional development committee. If every student has to pass the SOL English test, it is not enough that they have reading and writing just in English class. All the classes must support reading and writing skills. With block scheduling, students only have English for one semester each year so other subject areas must support those skills. Further, we used the research and training from the High Schools That Work Consortium to guide us in our professional development goals. The High Schools That Work research and training brought the school together, breaking down the traditional curriculum barriers.

As a result of all our efforts, the SOL scores steadily improved over the last six years until this year when we exploded or expanded our pass rate. In 1997 I told the staff to take it slow. We took the time to plan, align the curriculum, and worked together toward the goal. We were never frantic, but this year the seniors had to pass and we had to make it happen.

Question: Can you summarize some advice for other high school principals?
Response: First, look at your curriculum and program because they create the environment. Second, make students' needs the center of decision making. Decisions must be made based on what is best for students. Third, students must be able to identify with the school, if not through academics then through activities. We put lots of time, effort, and money into creating and supporting activities and clubs for everyone. Part of what makes the school more inclusive is to have as many kids as possible stay after school.

Last year we had 17% fewer suspensions because of consistent discipline and students being more involved with the school. Although we have consistent discipline, all the assistant principals also realize that one size does not fit all; that is, one consequence is not the answer. Teachers report feeling supported in the area of discipline because they know that the administrators look beyond the behaviors to what the student needs.

The bottom line is about establishing good relationships among students, faculty, and administrators. The principal's job is to create an inclusive environment through shared leadership and by being accessible to students and faculty.

Date: February/March 2004