Principal Blake Hammond slips into the back of a quiet fifth-grade classroom.
“Second row in,” he whispers. “He’s one of our kids.”
The boy is sitting next to an aide, a blank worksheet on his desk. The teacher is in the middle of a writing lesson. “What’s the difference,” she asks the class, “between revising and editing?”
The boy in the second row stands up. He walks to the front of the classroom and stops in front of the board so that his head and shoulders are blocking his classmates’ view. He’s there to fish around in a small blue bucket filled with sharpened No. 2 pencils. The pencils, pointed upward like flowers in a flower pot, rattle against the sides of the bucket.
Class continues. Students don’t complain that they can’t see the board. The teacher doesn’t tell the boy to sit down. Raised voices, the principal whispers, are a trigger for the boy, who before coming to Denver’s Green Valley Elementary was in a separate program for students with emotional disabilities. After about a minute and a half of softly jangling the pencils, the boy picks one. He calmly returns to his seat — and with his new pencil, begins his worksheet.
This is what inclusive practices look like at a Denver elementary school that is educating students with disabilities in general education classrooms, as opposed to separate special education classrooms, nearly all of the time. Denver Public Schools wants to move all of its schools in the same direction.
A districtwide goal
In June, the school board passed a resolution committing the district to becoming “a model … in the nation” for inclusive practices. The resolution was inspired by a task force of parents, educators, and advocates. Their overarching recommendation: Stop segregating students with disabilities when research shows including them benefits all students.
But Denver, like most districts, has a long way to go to get there. Only about 65% of the more than 10,000 Denver students identified as having a disability are included in the general education classroom more than 80% of the time, according to district data.
The district uses what it calls “center programs” to serve students with significant cognitive and emotional disabilities. The centers are separate classrooms, staffed by special education teachers and aides, where students do most of their learning. They may join their peers for lunch or recess, or for non-academic subjects like art. If they’re strong in math, they might go to the general education classroom for math lessons, but return to the center for reading.
A growing chorus of voices in Denver wants to blow up that model. District officials want to improve startlingly low test scores for students with disabilities. A majority of parents of students with disabilities said in a survey they want their child to spend more time in the general education classroom.
“If they’re just visiting classrooms once in a while for the projects people think they can handle, they will always be just outsiders looking in,” said Taryn Omran, whose 6-year-old daughter Maayan has Down syndrome and attends Willow Elementary, an exemplar for inclusive practices.
There was no public opposition to the resolution calling for Denver to become a national model for inclusion. But principals at schools experienced with it say some teachers initially worried if they’d be able to serve all students, especially those whose behavior could be disruptive.
“They were unaware and uneasy about, ‘How am I going to support a student of this severe need?’” said Hammond of Green Valley Elementary. “We had a conversation with staff the next year to say, ‘This is where we’re moving. If you want to be on board, stay with us. If it’s not something you’re interested in, there are other opportunities out there we can help you find.’”
Now, three years in, Hammond said the staff is committed. That was driven home recently, he said, when he heard a second-grade teacher say about one of her students with significant disabilities, “That’s my baby.” Hammond said it brought tears to his eyes.
“What a world we would be in if every person thought about kids as, ‘That’s my baby,’” he said. “If you take that mindset into the work that we do, there is no other way but inclusion.”
The ‘why’ and the ‘how’
Special Education Director Robert Frantum-Allen is tasked with shepherding the change at the district level. He is a former Denver teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing, and he has a disability — dyslexia — himself. He thinks most educators believe in inclusion, at least in theory.
“I think the community is compelled to understand the ‘why,’” Frantum-Allen said. “Where they struggle is ‘how.’ How do I do this when we have high-stakes testing?…How do we have diverse learners in classrooms and be able to meet the rigorous standards out there?”
Rather than starting with a mandate that all schools adopt inclusive practices immediately, Frantum-Allen is focusing this year on changing educators’ mindsets.
Over the summer, the district trained all principals on the basics of inclusive practices. Principals also completed a self-evaluation and chose one or two goals to work toward. This semester, principals will read a book on inclusive practices and discuss it.
“Some schools might perceive that they can’t serve these kids,” Frantum-Allen said. In those cases, the student is transferred from their neighborhood school to a school with a center program, which might require a long bus ride and separate the student from siblings.
“We want the attitude or belief to be, ‘We’re going to try everything we can to keep them at this school before we make an attempt to move them,’” Frantum-Allen said.
A handful of schools are already doing that. They include Green Valley and Willow, both in northeast Denver. (Willow was formerly called High Tech Elementary.) Rather than having a center program that serves students with one type of disability, such as autism, the schools take a “cross-categorical” approach to serve students with a range of disabilities. Every student is rostered to a general education classroom, where they spend as much of their day as possible.
“It’s an expectation they participate in everything,” said Hammond.
Green Valley made the switch to inclusive practices after the elementary school, the city’s biggest and perennially bursting at the seams, ran out of room for its center program. The school didn’t want to lose those students, so it began exploring what it would take to keep them.
By contrast, Willow was fully inclusive from the start. It opened in 2014 to serve a growing neighborhood, and its founding principal, Amy Gile, is a former special education teacher. She knew how isolating special education could be, and she didn’t want that for her school.
“In my previous experience, we’d have a mindset of, ‘We will include students with significant disabilities when they show us they’re ready for that,’” Gile said. “It seemed to me to perpetuate some of the isolation. … We’ve reached a place where that’s not happening.”
Willow has two classrooms that in a typical school would be set aside for center programming. But they’re not used that way. One is full of gym and play equipment, including a trampoline, a giant swing, and kid-sized tents filled with stuffed animals. Any student, whether they have a disability or not, can go there with an adult if they need a break.
The other is used by teachers to meet with students in small groups. The school has an innovative practice called “walk to read,” wherein every student, across grade levels, gets up and walks to a small group for instruction based on their academic level. The idea is to reduce the stigma of students with disabilities being the ones to leave the classroom for extra help.
Willow aims to further reduce that stigma by having special education teachers co-teach math lessons alongside classroom teachers, rather than focus on helping a single student.
“I’ve been in places in the past where it’s like, ‘You’re Amy’s teacher. You’re here for Amy,’” said Janis Dickman, who started at Willow as a special education teacher and is now the school’s director of culture. When a special education teacher shows up under the co-teaching model, she said, “it’s like ‘You’re here because it’s math time and you teach math.’”
‘He’s going to be OK’
Parents of students with disabilities appreciate Willow’s approach. Sharon Alvarez’s son Maurice has been at Willow since it opened. Alvarez adopted Maurice out of foster care when he was 3, and she said he’s always struggled with anger and impulse control.
He went to a different Denver public school for preschool, but Alvarez said that school told her it wouldn’t be able to handle Maurice in the more academic setting of kindergarten. A district administrator told Alvarez about Willow, and because the school was still under construction, Alvarez met Gile at a Starbucks. Gile, she said, told her she’d love to have Maurice.
And Maurice has thrived there, Alvarez said. While he still struggles with impulse control, he’s improving all the time. He has teachers he connects with, and friends who don’t ostracize him.
“He was a child that most people would have never let in their school because he’d be so out of control,” Alvarez said. At Willow, she said, “they’d just call me and we’d work through it. I’d be so upset, thinking they’re going to kick him out. They’ve never done that.
“They’ve always made me feel that he’s going to be OK.”