BELLINGHAM — At Sehome High School every freshman is considered a general education student.
That’s notable, education experts point out, because for years, students who require special education services often received those lessons in a special education classroom, separate from the rest of the school.
But at Sehome, nearly all the students spend almost the entire day in general education classrooms.
For the past decade, Sehome High School has been on a journey to expand access for all its students. The school has developed — with plenty of trial and error — a way to maximize the teaching staff, be creative with scheduling and assign two teachers to many classrooms, a practice known as co-teaching. In an Algebra 1 class, for example, there’s a subject matter expert — the math teacher — and then a second teacher who focuses on accessible learning.
These co-teaching teams work to ensure that grade-level content is accessible, and provides all students with opportunities to meet rigorous learning objectives.
The result, studies show, is that all students perform better academically, and everyone gains social skills and the opportunity to make new friends.
“We used to think about it really narrowly, like, how do we get students who have disabilities to be included in the general education setting?” said Sonia Cole, the high school’s principal.
Decades of research shows that when students are educated separately, they experience wider opportunity gaps, said Tania May, assistant superintendent of special education in the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, or OSPI. May oversees a department that provides special education services to more than 130,000 students in Washington.
For her, the heart of the work is serving those students.
“It’s important for us to remember that special education data are not simply numbers,” May said. “These data represent the lived experiences of our students and families.”
Despite the evidence, more than 11% of students in Washington who qualify for special education — nearly 16,000 pupils — spend less than 40% of their day in a general education classroom, according to 2021-2022 data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education.
Today at Sehome, inclusion permeates everything the school does, Cole said. That includes the new, 187,000-square-foot building opened in 2019, designed with inclusivity at its core.
“Inclusion to us means that any student can enter the building however they are, just as they are, and we’re ready and accepting. And we create an environment where they can thrive,” Cole said.
Seeing is believing
Sehome High School is one of 16 Inclusionary Practices Demonstration Sites in Washington that partners with specialists from the University of Washington’s Haring Center for Inclusive Education. There are preschools, elementary schools, middle and high schools spread across the state’s nine regional educational service districts. In addition to Sehome High School, there’s a middle school in Toppenish, a preschool in Selah and, a half-mile east of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, McMicken Heights Elementary School, among the others.
Several times a year, groups of educators tour Sehome High School and the other sites to see how each school, and each school district, has approached concepts to expand educational and social opportunities for students.
For many educators who tour the demonstration sites, observing inclusionary practices allows them to see what’s possible, said Christina Nowak, a UW special education and inclusion specialist who leads tours at Sehome.
“Sometimes people just need to see it in action to get on board,” she said.
Schools like Sehome apply to become a demonstration site. In addition to serving as models — and welcoming visitors — the participating schools have the benefit of working closely with a UW inclusion specialist like Nowak. Teachers and administrators have thought partners from the UW who can provide insights into the process of evolving and widening the thinking about what’s possible.
“What is so exciting about the Inclusionary Practices Demonstration Sites is that visitors can see inclusive education in action and take what they are learning to apply in their own contexts,” said Cassie Martin, OSPI’s executive director of special education. “It also provides the demonstration sites with opportunities to reflect and refine their practices and continue to innovate.”
More than a decade ago, Martin, then a doctoral student in the UW College of Education, started working with school districts in Washington to identify and build a network of demonstration sites for inclusionary practices. The districts, in turn, provided real-world experience for preservice educators, or teachers in training, in an inclusive education environment.
Seeing value in opening up those demonstration sites and sharing what works, OSPI has provided funding since 2019 to support the Haring Center’s work. In addition to facilitating tours and working closely with teachers and administrators, the Haring Center’s Inclusionary Practices Program demonstration sites’ webpage hosts a number of videos and other resources, expanding access to the growing body of knowledge.
A community of educators
During a week last winter, a group of high school teachers from the Ferndale School District, which neighbors Bellingham, spent the morning touring Sehome High School.
School district officials in Ferndale recently implemented co-teaching. The group on the tour compared notes as they observed co-taught math, social studies and English classes, then reflected on what they saw.
“The biggest challenge with inclusive learning is just getting it started, having all the players on board,” said Niki Wildermuth, a special education teacher from Ferndale High School.
Working closely with another instructor can be an adjustment for someone who has been teaching independently their entire career, she said. Culture change, many experts agree, can be a slow and non-linear process.
That’s why it’s so valuable to have a network of educators, said Joan Hudson, a language arts teacher from Ferndale.
“We’re all doing much the same thing in our classrooms, but not having that communication outside the classroom is a real drawback,” she said. “So, it is very validating to see other people doing the same thing, and get their ideas, and just be able to talk about what works.”
Creating universally designed classrooms
Education experts use the term “scaffolding” to describe various ways to support learners. That could be providing graphics, larger font sizes, adaptive technologies like an iPad or computer, or, sometimes, a paraeducator who can help the student work through complex problems.
Many of these tools were being used in the Sehome Algebra 1 classroom. The class looked like any other high school math class, with kids puzzling through equations. But roughly a third of the students qualify for an Individualized Education Program, a plan that ensures students have access to an education that works for them, in accordance with state and federal laws. Whether a student has dyslexia, autism or one of the other identified learning needs that require support, school districts, specialists, teachers and families work together to chart the student’s success.
In the past, many of these students would be placed in a segregated special education classroom or placed in general education but without the supports necessary to learn the content.
Growing bodies of academic research show that inclusive education benefits all children, increases the rates of learning and strengthens the classroom experience. In the algebra class, both of the teachers were engaged with the class — one projecting a lesson with equations; the other bouncing among students as they worked.
Sehome principal Cole has seen Bellingham Public Schools evolve over the span of her decades-long career, from when she started, teaching special education students in a segregated, basement classroom, to the example Sehome High School sets for innovating today.
“We just keep envisioning what’s the next right thing,” she said. “The joy is in the process and continuing to envision what’s next.”
For students, for educators, for the community
Change, even for the better, can sometimes be hard, Cole said. At first, some families and students resisted being placed in co-taught classrooms. To those families, Cole walked through the benefits: Better teacher-to-student ratio — instead of one teacher for 32 students, there’s now one teacher per 16 students; greater diversity in teaching styles means students are more likely to connect with a teacher; and there’s an opportunity for individualized instruction for all students.
It’s not just the teachers who think differently about helping students reach their potential. Students now advocate for each other, Cole said. They work intentionally to make sure other people are included. As the school embraces more variability, it creates space for everyone.
“I’m just so incredibly proud of the work that happens in this place. I think that we envisioned something more beautiful for our students,” Cole said. “We’re starting to see that come to fruition, not just for our students, but for ourselves and for our community.”
A related story was published by The Bellingham Herald.
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