How a Focus on High-Quality Curriculum Boosted Inclusion in our Schools
By Kristen Santilli
Our district conducted a review before the pandemic looking into how we were serving students with disabilities. What we learned made my heart sink. We weren’t doing nearly enough to create inclusive learning environments in which students with disabilities spent as much time as possible with their general education peers. My colleagues and I know every child in our district can succeed in school with strong teaching and good resources, but we had to ask ourselves: were we doing enough to help make that a reality? The answer was no. We had to do more to ensure all our students had access to engaging and rigorous learning experiences and grade-level content.
One key part of our strategy involved overhauling our literacy and math curriculum. We needed evidence-based programs that offered differentiated learning experiences, cohesive lessons across grades, and challenging work for all kids. After a lot of research, long conversations with our teachers, and pilot initiatives, we switched to a new K-6 math curriculum and new K-8 English language arts program last year. We used federal relief dollars to help make the change. A little more than a year later, we’ve improved our inclusion and achievement rates. Today, 91 percent of our students with IEPs are in inclusion setting, up from about 60 percent before we made these curriculum changes.
The math and reading curricula we’re using are highly rated by independent reviewers like Edreports.org. They are cohesive and consistent, meaning terms used and strategies emphasized show up from one classroom to the next and from grade to grade. These resources also are engaging and foster rich student conversations. That can be especially helpful to a student who may sometimes have trouble accessing text-based lessons easily or showing what they know and can do on paper. So, for example, I recently walked through elementary classrooms and found students highly engaged in Socratic seminars. You couldn’t tell who had an IEP and who didn’t. Everyone was contributing at a high level.
When seeking out new curricula we checked to see if they were written with Universal Design for Learning theory in mind and took into account readability and other potential obstacles to accessibility. It just makes sense. You don’t want overly complex sentences in word problems to get in the way of a child being able to meet math standards.
Once we put these new curricula in place, we worked with our teachers to use them well and in ways that allowed inclusive learning environments to flourish. We created more co-taught classrooms to ensure general education teachers were supported by special education colleagues. And we provided teachers working in teams with professional development to ensure they knew how to work seamlessly together, in ways that would support all learners.
To ensure all our students can access the new materials, which are more rigorous than resources we’ve used in the past, we’re using more scaffolding. So, you’re now more likely to see students reading together, teachers reading aloud to students, and kids' reading while listening to audio versions of a book. In math, you’ll find manipulatives in use more than in the past and students using many different models and strategies for solving problems. For example, while some kids might be drawing a pictorial model to answer a word problem, others might write an equation.
It's been a mindset shift. My colleagues and I have come to understand that we must keep pushing ourselves to ask why we can’t give struggling students access to rigorous work—not make excuses for not doing that.
Systemwide changes have bolstered all this work in the classrooms. We have a minimum of 30 minutes built into each day for academic support time. No new instruction happens then. Instead, kids get intervention and support. Teachers work individually with students or in small groups. This is helping our special education students and general education students alike, given unfished learning associated with the pandemic.
Parents have been enthusiastic about the changes we’ve made, but this kind of shift requires strong family engagement and communication efforts. At first, some parents and caregivers thought we were taking away services by pushing students into general education classrooms instead of pulling them out. We had to explain that students are still getting the services they need but in a more effective way. My advice for others looking to make similar changes is to take every opportunity to communicate what you want to do and explain how it is an improvement over past practice practices.
Soon after we implemented our new approach, a student said to me before leaving for the day: “Ms. Santilli, I had the best day today. I had the best day because I got to stay with my class for reading.” That made my day and solidified for me that embracing the science of reading and exposing students to grade-level content is what is best for kids.
This is a personal issue for me. I have a son who has dyslexia. He’s a senior in high school now, but he was once one of those children unnecessarily pulled out and sent to the resource room for pull-out instruction. He’s worked hard to understand how he learns best and do well in school. But I’m hopeful that today’s young learners won’t have to struggle in the same way he did and that the system we’re building will support all learners in the classroom and in life.
Kristen Santilli is the Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Data for grades PreK-12 for the Shelton Public School System in Shelton, CT.