In the fall of 2007, Accomack County Public Schools took steps to improve inclusive practices in all of their elementary schools. In preparation, each school sent teams made up of administrators, general educators, and special educators to a three-part inclusive practices leadership series offered by the Training and Technical Assistance Center (T/TAC) at The College of William and Mary and Old Dominion University. Team members worked together to design and implement a variety of systems-change activities. These activities supported staff members, parents, and students as they began effective inclusive practices.
In a recent interview, Clara Chandler, the principal of Accawmacke Elementary School, reflected on her experiences as a participant in the leadership series. Her school was awarded a grant that included follow-up coaching during the 2008-2009 school year. The team has continued to work together to weave inclusive practices into every aspect of their school culture.
Question: How did you select your leadership team?
Response: I tried to look for a balance of general education and special education building leaders who would take initiative and who are respected by the rest of the staff. We needed people who would be able to get other people to "buy in".
Question: How have you balanced responsibilities among team members?
Response: We've really worked as a team. Last year, every time we went to a workshop, we shared handouts and activities with the staff when we came back. We also met as a core team at least twice a month. It took a lot of time and effort. The core team members took the lead at grade-level meetings as we began to work with other key staff members.
Question: How did you assess your school culture and its readiness for inclusive practices?
Response: We used some of the tools that were introduced during the leadership series sessions. One of the meetings that stands out in my mind involved asking staff members to stand in front of pictures that identified where they thought we were in the inclusion process. They had to choose between pictures of a dirt road, a two-lane country road, a divided highway, and the Indy 500 Speedway. It was very eye opening to see where people thought we were. People were very candid. I wanted them to be able to share their concerns. Some of them did surprise me, but I appreciated their honesty. It was my role to deal with those concerns and help move the process forward.
Question: How have you been able to make time for meetings and other team activities?
Response: Last year we met much more frequently than we do now. In the beginning stages, we spent several days meeting with every special education teacher about their students along with the general education teacher who served a given child. We reviewed student needs and worked out schedules. While we met as a core leadership team to begin the process, we had to work as a school team to work out the details.
We've now expanded our inclusion team beyond the team that actually went to the series. We've made the inclusion team part of our school improvement team and tried to fold that into what we already do. When we need to meet as a core team, we make time for it, but for the most part we have been able to build it into what we already do.
Question: What are the celebrations that you've enjoyed along the way?
Response: I'm very excited when I walk through the building in the mornings. It just looks different than it used to. Teachers are working with student needs as co-teachers, not based on one being the special educator and the other the general educator. We just celebrate our small successes as we go.
Question: What stumbling blocks did you encounter, and how did you overcome them?
Response: The biggest challenges have been scheduling and finding time for co-planning. We originally created a schedule that is not ideal. But we've had much better success this year because we knew where we were headed before schedules and class rosters were developed. We've been able to group our students more strategically, and we have one to two co-taught classes per grade level. Our co-teaching pairs are receiving ongoing co-planning support and coaching from consultants provided by T/TAC.
Question: What advice would you give other building administrators as they implement or expand inclusive practices in their buildings?
Response: Take your time and get a lot of feedback from your teachers. I think working as a team through the process is probably the most important piece. It boils down to working together and giving teachers a lot of support. I think it is also important to give people the opportunity to express concerns when something isn't working.
Question: What are your wishes for the inclusive practices initiative as you move forward?
Response: I'd like to have a system in place for getting more people on board and ready to work in co-teaching relationships where the planning and instruction are shared equally. I believe that our core team will be a great support when we have new teachers who are not familiar with inclusion and co-teaching. It is also nice to know that I can count on T/TAC to come help support our efforts.
To contact Clara Chandler, email her at email@example.com.
Date: May/June 2009