Integration of students by race and class and inclusion of students with disabilities are educational goals with many linkages, past and present. This past May marked the sixty-eighth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that struck down racial segregation in schools. In the years following the decision, Brown not only served as a catalyst for school desegregation, but also laid a foundation for the disability rights movement. Two decades after Brown, in 1975, the federal law now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed, building on many of the arguments against “separate-but-equal.”
When racial and socioeconomic school integration is done well, it can help all students thrive in a diverse world. Learning should include choice and responsibility to prepare kids for the real world. Learning alongside students who come from different racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds helps students develop critical thinking skills and leads to a host of other educational benefits that are well documented by decades of research.
Research likewise shows that there can be benefits to all students when educated in inclusive educational environments. Inclusive classrooms go beyond mere integration to provide educational supports to meet the needs of all students, including children with disabilities, and may include specially designed instruction paired with the grade level instruction, co-teaching models, and providing any additional support in the classroom for children with disabilities rather than in a segregated educational setting. Inclusive models are highly beneficial for all students. Inclusive schools that see students as highly variable use teaching methods that ensure academic access for all students, which promotes belonging and provides students with multiple means to learn and express understanding. This mindset benefits all children because it pushes up against the traditional classroom that typically teaches to the middle and re-imagines a community where students are honored for who they are and where learning environments are created that meet the needs of all learners.
A large body of research shows that inclusive educational settings, in contrast with segregated classrooms, provide many benefits for students with disabilities, including increased reading and math achievement, improved attendance, fewer behavioral problems, increased graduation rates, greater likelihood of employment and living independently after graduation, and social and emotional benefits. As a 2016 meta-analysis of 280 studies from twenty-five countries found, “There is clear and consistent evidence that inclusive educational settings can confer substantial short- and long-term benefits for students with and without disabilities.”
Inclusive classrooms also have benefits for students without disabilities. Students without disabilities show reduced prejudice and fear of difference as well as increased self-esteem and sense of belonging when they are educated alongside peers with disabilities. The academic effects of being educated in an inclusive environment are by and large positive or neutral for students without disabilities.
Despite the clear benefits of both integration by race and class and inclusion of students with disabilities, many students are still missing out on one or both sets of benefits.
But despite the clear benefits of both integration by race and class and inclusion of students with disabilities, many students are still missing out on one or both sets of benefits. Even something as basic and simple as the language of integration by race and class and inclusion of students with disabilities are not well coordinated. Within the school desegregation community, “integration” usually refers to a robust set of goals for creating schools where students of diverse backgrounds learn and thrive together—as Martin Luther King, Jr. explained:
Although the terms desegregation and integration are often used interchangeably, there is a great deal of difference between the two. In the context of what our national community needs, desegregation alone is empty and shallow. We must always be aware of the fact that our ultimate goal is integration, and that desegregation is only a first step on the road to the good society.
Within the disability community, however, “integration” has a different meaning that falls short of inclusion—placing disabled students in the same educational spaces but without providing supports.
From federal policy down to classroom practice, meeting the needs of disabled students and addressing the racial, cultural, and socioeconomic mix in a school or classroom are usually dealt with separately. Federal education laws, programs of study in schools of education, state teacher certifications, and professional organizations all tend to deal with these differences in silos. Special education and general education are typically organized as separate tracks in teacher preparation programs. The federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program, the largest current federal investment in school desegregation, specifies that schools may not discriminate based on disability, as required by multiple federal laws, but does not require them to incorporate disability into their definitions or plans for integration. One review of research on professional development for inclusive education found that 70 percent of articles defined inclusive education as focusing solely on disability.
A lack of focus on the intersection of race, class, and disability may also be contributing to inequitable treatment and outcomes. Students of color with disabilities are disproportionately likely to be over-identified, placed in more segregated settings, and disciplined at higher rates. In 2019, only 10 percent of white students with disabilities and 10 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native students with disabilities were educated in separate classrooms for more than 60 percent of the day, compared to 21 percent of Asian students and 16 percent of Black students. And as of 2017–18, Black students served under IDEA were two to three times overrepresented in school suspensions: these students make up 2.3 percent of the total student population but 6.3 percent of those students receiving at least one in-school suspension and 8.8 percent of students receiving at least one out-of-school suspension.
Some advocates in the disability community, education community, and integration community are working to break down these siloes. The CEEDAR Center at the University of Florida, for example, works to reform educator preparation to include training across fields on evidence-based practices that make for successful inclusive settings that support students with disabilities, rather than treating general education and special education as separate tracks in teacher preparation.
Another organization that is working to bring together the conversations about racial and socioeconomic integration and inclusion of students with disabilities is Roots ConnectED, a professional development organization focused on providing tools for “creating intentionally integrated and inclusive school communities.”
I (Halley Potter) interviewed Roots ConnectED’s executive director, Sahba Rohani, and board member Sara Stone to learn more about their work at this pivotal but often overlooked intersection. Here’s what they had to say.
Q: Roots ConnectED was inspired by the work of Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn. I know that integration and inclusion were both part of the founding vision for Community Roots. Can you tell us more about that story?
Sara: I met Allison Keil in a school design class at Bank Street College in the Education Leadership program. This was where our experience in public education and our backgrounds and beliefs about good schools began to take its shape in the form of a public school, which we would later open in 2006, Community Roots. We imagined and created a school model that prioritized inclusion, diversity, and the use of social studies as a core instructional model. We believe that students learn by doing and that centering history and current events in our classrooms would help students see their role and agency in the communities they belong to. What we promised ourselves is that any child who “walked through the doors of our school” would feel welcomed and supported. We knew that commitment would require a deep understanding of what it means to educate a diverse student body, learning tools like co-teaching, and developing a mindset that belonging is paramount to doing creative and justice-oriented work. The work is ongoing. We can always learn more about how we learn. It’s exciting work and it could not be done without the deep commitment and incredible expertise of the humans that work in our school. We pay attention to everything from the language we use to talk about children, to the classroom communities that are built on love and authentic relationships, to staff development that encourages reflection of how we are developing our programs, routines, and structures accessible to children and their families. Learning to meet the needs of all students and considering all of their intersecting identities is part of our ongoing work. We don’t feel like we are ever “done.”
Sahba: I had the honor of being a founding staff at Community Roots, co-teaching in a kindergarten class in 2006. We opened up our classroom and it was flooded with students of all racial and economic backgrounds, with varied learning needs, among all the other beautiful parts of their identities. One of the first things that Allison and Sara did was talk to us about how we imagined our classrooms; what we hoped for the microcosms of love and belonging that we were trying to create for all of our students. How do we view their differences not as barriers, but as part of the strengths that will create the tapestry of our classrooms. As someone with no degree or background in special education, I had a steep learning curve, but the systems and structures that were in place, as well as the consistent space for planning, action, and reflection, were key to my own development and ability to serve all students in my classroom. After a few years in the classroom, I transitioned into my role as the director of community development. In that role I was charged with learning how we build community across traditional lines of difference. With all the stakeholders in a school community—the faculty, the students, and the families—how are we working to create communities of belonging? How are we prioritizing anti-bias practices that support integrated and inclusive school communities?
Over time, that learning deepened and led to fellow educators, school administrators, and thought leaders asking us questions about what we learned. Roots ConnectED was born out of the desire to provide support and accompaniment for other like-minded educators who believe, like we do, that all kids (and adults!) deserve a thoughtful curriculum, deep sense of community, and a commitment to justice and equity.
Q: Roots ConnectED’s work is founded in an anti-bias education framework. Can you explain what that framework is?
Sahba and Sara: Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks, Julie Olsen Edwards, and Catherine M. Goins is the foundational text outlining anti-bias education. Within the text, it is stated:
Anti-bias curriculum is value based: Differences are good; oppressive ideas and behaviors are not. . . . [The curriculum] sets up a creative tension between respecting differences and not accepting unfair beliefs and acts. It asks teachers and children to confront troublesome issues rather than covering them up. An anti-bias perspective is integral to all aspects of daily classroom life. . . . The point to remember is that an anti-bias approach is integrated into rather than added onto an existing curriculum.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children furthered this point when they shared, “Rather than a formula for a particular curriculum, [anti-bias education] is an underpinning perspective and framework that permeates everything . . . including your interactions with children, families, and colleagues.” Therefore, adopting an anti-bias lens is never about throwing away curriculum and practices, but about seeing what currently exists through a lens of equity and justice. It is ongoing work that involves all stakeholders and must begin with a shift in mindset and ideology.
The way that Roots ConnectED thinks about anti-bias education was adapted from the works of Derman-Sparks, Edwards, and Goins. We believe that in order for students to meaningfully benefit from this approach, it is important for the ideology and framework to have implications for all stakeholders, meaning we as adults continue to do the work ourselves. We also adjusted the framework to include the principles of inclusion and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). You will also notice that “identity” and “inclusion” are centralized in the framework (see Figure 1), as we believe they are part of the mindset required to do this work. We define “identity work” as the deep understanding of one’s intersecting identifiers. We believe identity work includes the practice of recognizing personal biases and prejudices, as well as one’s own power and positionality and how they show up and impact individual decisions and actions. Lastly, we believe identity work requires ongoing learning and unlearning, grace, and revolutionary love. “Inclusion” is the fundamental principle within community that fully embraces an authentic sense of belonging as opposed to assimilating into what is considered “normal.” Inclusion entails the intertwining of interdependence and independence to see the complexity of individuals. It requires all to recognize that their actions impact others and that they are all integral parts of a community. The tools and practices of the framework include representation, community building, critical literacy, Universal Design for Learning, and social action, and operate as tools that work together in synchronous and overlapping ways to build up and support anti-bias communities.
Q: As you mentioned above, Roots ConnectED didn’t invent the idea of anti-bias education, but your version of the anti-bias framework is unique (as far as we know) in terms of including inclusion and Universal Design for Learning as part of it. Can you explain what UDL is and why it was important for you all to add that as one of the pillars in your framework?
Sahba and Sara: In our resource, “The Myth of the Average Learner,” one of our Roots ConnectED coaches, Molly Nestor Kaye shares:
We see UDL as a framework to help us attend to learner variability and ensure we present concepts in different ways while engaging students and encouraging them to express their knowledge in different ways. However, in order to truly support the various learning needs of our students it is essential that we recognize our own variability and the multifaceted ways in which our experiences and biases impact our perspective.
This is so critical as it speaks to the personal work we have to each do to shift our mindsets in a way that centers this idea that we all learn in very different ways. The antiquated labels and ideas of “normal” do not exist. In the same way that our identities are varied, diverse, and multifaceted, the ways in which we learn and our ability ranges as well. “The goal is that as educators,” Molly continues, “we become facilitators of learning rather than holders of knowledge. Then we can start to think about different pathways to learning that exist within the context of a single lesson in order to meet the needs of more and more students.”
Ultimately, we are working to create interdependent communities. Educators often focus on students’ independence, but classroom communities are interdependent. Isolating individual kids and trying to meet their needs doesn’t make sense in the classroom because communities, including classroom communities, are necessarily interdependent.
We want students to see their success and liberation as tied to their peers, not in competition with them. This idea connects to the thinking of great social justice advocates and thought leaders. We want students to fundamentally see each other as members of a community where all people belong and are seen and honored. To do that, we have to see the intersecting identifiers of all of our students. Isolating individual identities can be harmful to equity work. Mia Mingus, a writer, educator, and trainer for transformative justice and disability justice, so beautifully emphasizes this fact as she shares, “Interdependency is not just me ‘dependent on you.’ It is not you, the benevolent oppressor, deciding to ‘help’ me. It is not just me who should be grateful for whatever I can get. . . . Interdependency is both ‘you and I’ and ‘we.’ It is solidarity, in the best sense of the word. It is inscribing community on our skin over and over and over again.” This is foundational to our work at Roots ConnectED.
This video shares more about the tool of UDL and why we think it is so critical in the framework for anti-biased, justice focused education.
Q: Can you give some examples of what it looks like in practice to bring inclusion of students with disabilities and integration by race, class, and culture together in a classroom?
Sahba and Sara: This image in Figure 2 explicitly describes how we think about Inclusion. In the progression often shared, you can see the transition from exclusion to inclusion. But to put it one step farther, we actually think that the separation between the green dots and the other dots in the top row is false: every learner is different, and our job is to create a community and a classroom in which they can all learn and feel like they belong.
One of our coaches, Barry Rust, shares, “It’s important to say that this does not mean that ‘disability’ does not exist. Rather, it is among the range of differences that we must plan for as we design our classroom environments. We are all different, and it’s important that we not label some differences as something to be eliminated.” The idea is that no parts of our identities are divorced from who we are. The same ways in which race and class make up our identities, ability and disability are part of our identity. Othering any part of ourselves denies us the capacity to create true spaces of belonging. We offer this idea of inclusion in a way that accepts and honors each person’s unique identity and capacity.
Sara: This question to me just means if it’s good, thoughtful teaching, then all children deserve it. The work is to ensure we have access to rigorous, authentic, meaningful learning. The pandemic further emphasized for our school the importance of centering equity in our decisions. When schools closed, we had to consider that while being in school could not be replaced, students had differing needs based on their personal circumstances and identifiers. We knew that we had to leverage and match the resources we had, such as a school building with limited space due to social distancing requirements, and prioritize students who were most immediately impacted. We leveraged our school building as an extension of home, and with the few seats we had, we opened classrooms physically but maintained a virtual classroom for all students. All students would receive instruction from their teachers through Zoom, being part of the community, connecting with teachers and peers through space. We balanced academics with time for socializing and connecting, through group and partner work, and even choice time, as kids played games over Zoom. This approach exemplified pushing the boundaries so that all children felt included, by maintaining academic and emotional connections. And ultimately, what may have started as benefiting a few ended up benefiting all students and the community, when needs are met. We also always talked with families and with students about the decisions we made. We answered questions such as “Why is your friend at school?” and “Why is your friend at home?” This transparency, I believe, leads to trust, and a model and belief that when you need help, you know your community is a true resource.
We also put an immense amount of energy into developing an outdoor education program with the guidance and vision of an incredible kindergarten team and outdoor educator, and co-director Allison Keil. What stood out to me, as an observer, who wished my own child could repeat kindergarten and attend, was seeing that students building relationships with the outdoors helped them to build strong relationships with each other, learning to meaningfully problem solve using their minds and bodies to build, take risks, and try things over and over again. They fully imagined using materials in new ways, creating and compromising.
They laughed, had conflict, and learned repair, all essential skills in being able to do rigorous, challenging academic work. The garden and local park served as the setting to observe and participate in human growth and the natural world. Each day they would gather evidence about each other, learn that they could get along and support each other, translating these deep relationships into learning academics.
Q: What are the barriers or challenges to working on the intersection of the integration of students by race and class and the inclusion of students with disabilities?
Sahba and Sara: We think about this a lot. Historically, conversations about culturally relevant teaching and addressing the opportunity gap have been really different conversations than those focused on inclusion and meeting the needs of students with disabilities. They have been separated into completely different tracks. So first it’s a mindset shift. We think mindset is a big barrier. A common response we get when we talk about UDL as a tool for transforming learning in the classroom and the implications that has for equity, is, “We can send our special education teachers to learn about UDL.” We have to first see our children as whole human beings, and then recognize that the way they learn, just like the racial and cultural identities that they carry with them, all impact their experience in the classroom, all should be honored, and all should be considered to support their engagement and belonging.
Sahba: I was presenting at a conference in 2012 and talking with a school leader who worked in an intentionally integrated school. We talked a lot about the work they were doing to make their curriculum one that centered on equity and justice, we talked about the social action projects their students were involved in, and I heard about the ways in which the kids were organizing for change. It was thrilling. As we continued to talk, I asked her about her family and found out she had school-aged children. “You must be so happy to have your child in your school to experience all this!” She stopped. “Oh, we can’t meet his learning needs, so he is at another school.” This moment solidified for me how these two parts of educational training can not be seen as separate. What does it matter if we have the most well designed, social justice based curriculum, if it is not accessible to all of our children? We aren’t trained to think about these things as interconnected. That is a barrier.
Sahba and Sara: Another barrier is limitations on time. To do this work with intention requires space for learning and deep thinking. We have to first see the time spent here as equally valuable for any student. It’s valuable to see that my learning is connected to your success. Schools have to do more than allocate time, there has to be a strong foundational understanding that one student is not in service of another based on their profile, but that instead we are of greater service to each other to see that our success is intertwined with each other.
Then time needs to be allocated to plan and reflect on the relationship between what we know about our students and what we know about the curriculum. Our job is to create pathways to the curriculum based on what we know, to ensure that students have access to the content and multiple ways of expressing that understanding. We do not believe it’s necessarily about always removing barriers, but rather understanding them and then helping students to self-identify what they need to accomplish a goal. This practice leads to children developing the necessary tools and resilience to move the classroom toward a more just and equitable space.
Sara: When I was in college, I will never forget a teacher who told us there will always be a student who you think could take that place, who you think doesn’t fit or doesn’t belong. If you keep removing these children, who do you have left, and what does that represent? I believe the goal is for students to not fear it is themselves that caused it, or wonder what that child did to be separated, but instead to see that they all belong and we all get what we need, even if what we need is different. We have to spend the time to understand each other, and give space for students to help each other and work together in service of a common goal.
I will never forget a teacher who told us there will always be a student who you think could take that place, who you think doesn’t fit or doesn’t belong. If you keep removing these children, who do you have left, and what does that represent?
Q: What advice do you have for educators that are interested in doing more work to address integration and inclusion across race, class, disability, or other identities?
Sahba and Sara:
Start with yourself. Approach this thinking with humility and a learning mindset. Ask yourself: What do I believe to be true about people based on their racial and economic identifiers? What do I believe to be true about students with disabilities? How much have I thought about the intersection of these identifiers? Do I create curricula with this mindset? Do I plan staff professional development with this mindset? This deep interrogation is the most foundational work we can do.
Then, think about where you need support. Do you/your faculty currently meet the needs of all learners but haven’t been thinking about anti-racist/anti-biased practices and curriculum? Do you/your faculty currently teach with a social justice lens but haven’t considered using Universal Design for Learning to ensure that all students are engaged and have access to the incredible curriculum you have created? We find that there are specific indicators to doing this work well. It requires, among other things:
- intentional professional development,
- a consistent commitment to mindset,
- adequate staffing, and
- common planning time and structures for collaboration.
Figure out what you need and find folks who can help you. Roots ConnectED coaches educators in both these areas, but we are definitely not the only ones with expertise in this field. Find support and commit to consistent learning.
We believe it’s important to be fiercely loyal to inclusion. When you commit to not segregating children by ability, you commit to problem solving and being creative. This model for children, will help them to see the bridges they too can create in the communities they will be a part of as adults.
Finally, remember that shifts in culture and ideology take time. Recognize that this is still a field to be cultivated. The work is ongoing and it can sometimes feel slow, albeit urgent. And continue to keep the needs of kids at the forefront of your work, always. As you do, you stop seeing these paths as different, because they intersect in each child. As you see them as a whole human—with their racial and cultural identifiers, with their learning differences, with their varied perspectives based on their family, religion, socioeconomic background, gender, and sexuality—your teaching shifts to meet those needs. And there you start to see children who are affirmed in their identities, empowered to make change, and have the ability to navigate the environment and skills to advocate for their needs and wants. Then you have physical and emotional safety and a way to continuously center reflection on equity.
Ultimately, we imagine a world where talking about school integration and talking about learning needs are not two separate things coming together. Instead we are trying to change the conversation. We cannot do integration well if we are not considering a very integral and vital part of each human being: how they learn. We will do better by all students and faculty alike if we look at and learn from the intersection of these two big ideas in educational discourse.