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CalSTAT Technical Assistance and Training

IDEAS that Work!California Department of Education, Special Education Division’s special project, California Services for Technical Assistance and Training (CalSTAT) is funded through a contract with the Napa County Office of Education. CalSTAT is partially funded from federal funds, State Grants #H027A080116A. Additional federal funds are provided from a federal competitively awarded State Personnel Development Grant to California (#H323A070011) provided from the U.S. Department of Education Part D of the Individuals with Disabilities Education act (IDEA). Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the U. S. Department of Education.

This issue of The Special EDge is the second of two that explore how schools, school districts, and educational leaders in California are taking the vision of a coherent, unified system of education and turning it into reality. The people and places highlighted here are breaking down traditional barriers between general and special education and contributing to school climates and systems in which all students with disabilities are general education students first. The previous issue, Winter 2015, is available at


The Challenge of Change Educational Leadership

Good managers keep an organization on course. Good leaders guide a change in course.

As school and district administrators are being called to lead their systems to become more unified and coherent—through the Local Control Funding Formula and the recommendations of the California Task Force on Special Education, among other initiatives—they must shift their role from effective management to inspired leadership. While ensuring that "the entire range of conditions and incentives in districts and schools fully supports rather than inhibits teaching and learning," 1 they must also commit to creating systems that are concertedly addressing each of these "conditions and incentives." A number of schools and districts in the state have launched themselves on this path, and their leaders display a clear set of qualities.

Establish a Vision

Lori Stillings was a key leader in developing and introducing a vision for a model of inclusion throughout Tustin Unified School District (TUSD), with the goal of educating more students with disabilities alongside their peers in general education settings. "We put a lot of thought behind the rollout," she says about the process she used. "We worked very hard to address concerns; we [developed] an inclusive schooling newsletter; we also presented a rationale [for inclusion], about how we were not reaching our LRE [least restrictive environment] goals. We had a workgroup of special and general educators who were able to share their concerns. We provided training and support that responded to those concerns. I shared research about how inclusion was better for all kids. We [conducted] ongoing visitations to sites as they began [their inclusive classes] to make sure they felt supported. And I made it clear that we were not doing this for financial reasons."

Given the time and attention she paid to preparing stakeholders, it is no surprise that Stillings received "very little pushback" when rolling out the new model. "Special education just needed the rationale. General education just needed the training," she said. "And our parents were excited."

Stillings was also strategic in how the change was announced. "We wanted the message not to come from special education," she says. "The initial message came from the superintendent. We then met with all of the principals, followed by the special education teachers and then site-level teams comprised of the administrator, general education transitional kindergarten and kindergarten teachers, SAI [specialized academic instruction2] teachers, and other support staff."

Stillings counsels other district leaders that, "You want the message to be 'These are all of our students'; not 'Special education is a separate group.'"

Holly Wade agrees. The chief student services officer at Palo Alto USD, Wade says, "Where I've seen the most promise" in leadership "is where you have an instructional leader, a principal, who takes ownership. All of this conversation," she says, is about shifting special education from a "central office focus to a decentralized ownership of students who receive special education services at the school sites. So when you have an instructional leader who says, 'This is my school, these are my students,' then it's a different conversation."

Stay the Course

Sharon Keplinger was preschool director in Palo Alto USD when inclusive schools became the norm for students with disabilities. She doubts if inclusive practices could have been successfully introduced—and maintained—if she hadn't "had someone at the district level who said, 'I will support you every step of the way.'" Wade was that "someone" for Keplinger.

Wade talks about her district's current culture of "no segregation" as simply "the way it is. That's taken awhile," she admits. "As a leader, that has to be the norm, though. There is no other way."

Keep the Message Consistent

A clear, consistent, unvarying message is also central to successful school change. When stakeholders aren't kept apprised of what's happening—where and how change is taking place, what the thinking is behind the change, how efforts are evolving, and what the effects are— the human tendency is to fill in the blanks, and not always favorably. Effective communication is critical to making sure there are no blanks to fill in with answers that could inadvertently undermine the goal.3

Wade talks about the importance of "staying on message; staying clear on where exactly the proposed changes are going and how we're going to get there. Constantly taking [teachers and parents] back to that, keeping them on track, and then updating them on the progress we're making . . . We established a vision, and I only message on that vision. People knew what we were trying to do."

In addition to maintaining consistent and frequent communication, school districts that are in the process of creating unified systems are also creating a unified vision. The special education department in Palo Also had articulated its own vision of inclusion for special education six years ago: that of finding opportunities to educate students with disabilities with their same-age peers in general education settings. "At the time," says Wade, "it was important to establish a new direction for special education." But "two years ago it didn't make any sense to have a vision separate from the district's. We wanted to establish a shared vision."

Wade is candid about the fact that this single focus is not easy to maintain. "It's very hard work," she says. "Being someone who brings change can be fraught with challenges. In this position, you get lots of criticism. But I never said it was going to be easy, and I never said there was a checklist and once you got to the end of the checklist you could be done. This is an ongoing challenge."

Be Flexible

Because of her experience as a special educator, Wade is constantly checking for the "appropriateness" of the educational settings of her students with disabilities. "It's exciting to watch an entire school shift in the direction" of inclusion, she says. "And we've done that with several of our elementary schools—every student there is a member of the campus; they participate on all levels. But we have to stay focused on each student's needs when they are in the general education environment." She continually asks herself, "Is this the best place for this student to learn?"

From watching classes evolve over time and listening to parents, Wade and other leaders who are trying to create inclusive systems have not developed an "inclusion is the only option for everybody" attitude. "Some families of students who have more significant needs—whether it's related to health issues or multiple disabilities or whatever—form a network among themselves. These people live that journey 24–7. I want to honor that," she says, reflecting on the fact that eliminating all special classes or settings may make it more difficult for these important relationships to develop. "I know that those parents are very invested in the camaraderie that comes from walking the same path." Balancing a sensitivity to the needs of families and students while implementing a districtwide model of inclusion "has always been a struggle," she says.

Respond to Your Staff

Good leaders are sensitive to the needs of teachers and staff members as well as those of parents and students. Catherine Vittorio, professional development coordinator for Etiwanda USD, talks about the importance of "district administrators responding to what the teachers want to do. In our district, teachers are heard."

Vittorio also stresses the importance of leaders being sensitive and responsive to the differences among their staff. "Teachers are in different places, just as students are. So different teachers need different things," and the administrators in Etiwanda provide supports for their staff accordingly. "Some people are taking little steps and some people are taking bigger steps" as they become more inclusive in their practice. "Responsiveness is led and modeled by the administration. There is just a grace combined with the vision" in that responsiveness "that will get us all there," says Vittorio, anticipating successfully responsive and inclusive schools.

Be Personal

Vittorio describes Etiwanda as "a district where the superintendent walks in and knows your name. He knows his teachers. The cabinet members visit school sites multiple days a month, just seeing classrooms. They know the schools and their staff." She is convinced that this personalized approach to leadership is central to Etiwanda's success. The district is currently a model site for the Inclusion Collaborative. "The vision is planted by the leaders, but the voice of all stakeholders helps to grow the vision. With any new initiatives, teachers have a voice, parents have a voice. That creates the buy-in."

Charlayne Sprague, assistant superintendent of instruction and pupil services at Etiwanda, insists that this inclusivity contributes directly to a healthy culture throughout the district: "There is no culture of  'us versus them,'" she says. She also talks about the "top down mentality" that often takes over when educational leaders attempt to introduce change to large systems. She counsels a different path to securing buy-in. "At Etiwanda," she says, "change is always from the ground up. It's a little slower sometimes," she admits. But Beth Freer, Etiwanda's director of special education, insists that Etiwanda's approach "is huge" in its effectiveness. "It's leadership not for leadership's sake. It's leadership for the greater good—the good of the students, the good of your peers. It's really a different mentality."

Invest in Your Own

"Our district tends to grow from within," says Sprague, "and we invest in our own people. They've been through our professional development. Then they take on leadership. We bring them in for programs and services and trainings. We nurture them."

Sprague tells the story of another assistant school superintendent who took her to lunch and said, "I need to know, Charlayne, I absolutely need to know—what did you do in Etiwanda to be so successful? I need to know your secret."

"There wasn't any one thing I could point a finger at," Sprague says, "because it really is about relationships and good leadership. Building our staff up from within and using their strengths is the secret to our success. It's the awesome dedication of our teachers to give so much to their teams."

And perhaps success also has something to do with the awesome dedication of the leadership.



1. Hammond, L. D., et al. (2007). Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World. The Wallace Foundation. Retrieved from

2. SAI is s model of instructional delivery for services in the Individualized Education Program (IEP); it involves "adapting, as appropriate to the needs of the child with a disability the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction to ensure access of the child to the general curriculum." (Code of Federal Regulations, Title 34, Section 300.39[b][3])

3. Levin, B., Datnow, A., & Carrier, N. (2012). Changing School District Practice. Students at the Center. Retrieved from


School Leadership That Works: From Research To Results, by R. Marzano, T. Waters and B. McNult, is available in its entirety at

How Leadership Influences Student Learning from The Learning from Leadership Project, Wallace Foundation, is at http://www.wallace

"As Diversity Grows, So Must We," by Gary Howard in Responding to Changing Demographics, 64(6), 16–22, is at,-So-Must-We.aspx

Letter from the Interim State Director

Spring is here. Suddenly our landscape is brighter, and a vibrant energy fills the air. I feel the same about my job these days.

I have worked for the Department of Education for 25 years, and this is the most excited and hopeful I've ever been about collaborative efforts to support students with disabilities in a single, unified system of education. We have seen an unprecedented level of attention to and ambition for the ultimate goal of serving our students with disabilities as general education students.

On March 9, Phase 2 of California's State Systemic Improvement Plan (SSIP) was unanimously approved by the California State Board of Education. Phase 2 relies on the premise that students with disabilities are also frequently students learning English, students living in poverty, and/or students in foster care. To label a student as belonging only to one group or another is to ignore the bigger picture.

Our students need a system that avoids the pitfalls of using rigid labels and discrete categories of services, which limit our creativity when designing an educational environment where all students can thrive. The time for exercising our creativity and reforming our old way of thinking is here. This issue of The Special EDge is the second of two that highlight efforts on state and local levels to create a single system of education for all students. The issue covers topics that are associated with success in building a unified system: strong leadership, collaborative teaching, parent engagement, and classroom inclusion. In addition, the four-page insert provides a comprehensive overview of the SSIP, including how it aligns with and complements the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) initiative and Local Control and Accountability Plans.

Refreshingly, amid the several important initiatives designed to improve education for our students (e.g., LCFF, Blueprint 2.0, and the Statewide Special Education Task Force), the integration of special education and students with disabilities has been thoroughly discussed, considered, and highlighted throughout the process. This inclusive process has created an inspiring atmosphere for positive change, with support from all levels of leadership and administration. The result is a united effort to push forward and leave no student behind—a momentum unlike anything I've seen in the past.

While there is so much important work ahead of us, I am encouraged by the stories of change already happening in the school districts highlighted in this issue. I am encouraged by our leaders in education who are actively pursuing a better future for our students. I am encouraged that so many voices across the state are calling for the same type of change—to see our students with disabilities as general education students first. And, most of all, I am honored and humbled to be a part of it.

—Chris Drouin

Paths to Improving Education: Parent and Family Engagement

“All parents are general education parents first, just as all students are general education students first.”

California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) has established a particularly powerful mandate to make this statement true in practice as well as in policy. While the language of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) first places students with disabilities within general education and then ensures them the supports and services they need to benefit from that education, two separate systems have emerged since the law’s passage in 1975. Until recently, these two “educations”—general education and special education—have routinely operated in their own silos with little overlap. Yet research and practice increasingly point to a unified system as more effective for everyone involved, especially students. The LCFF reflects this understanding by promoting unity in programs, accountability systems, and state and local technical supports; and by insisting that all students—and parents—belong to one and the same system.

While IDEA funding for students with disabilities remains separate from the new formulas, local education agencies1 (LEAs) are accountable through their Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) for the progress of all students, including students with disabilities, as well as students who are English language learners, students in foster care, and students who live in poverty. LEAs must now also include parents of these students in their LCAP development and refinement processes. The bottom line: LCFF is a general education initiative, and students with disabilities and their parents are included.

This inclusion represents an extraordinary change in culture for parents and school personnel alike. Both cohorts will need time, patience, and a great deal of information and practice before attitudes, beliefs, and habits catch up with what is now the law—and with what is known to best serve students. The following information can support parents of children with disabilities to become engaged in their school districts’ LCAP processes and contribute to the evolution of a unified, coherent system of education.

The LCFF Vision

Truly unified systems of education call for every influential person in the life of a child to work together.2 Decades of research confirm that parents are a central part of this system. The participation of parents and family members “in schools and classrooms affect[s] children’s achievement, attitudes, and aspirations, even after student ability and family socioeconomic status are taken into account.” 3 When Governor Brown signed the LCFF into law in 2013, he recognized this powerful influence and “elevated parent engagement to a legal requirement as well as one of the eight statewide education priorities in the LCFF.” 4 It is no longer optional for LEAs to invite parents to participate in the process of designing educational budgets and programs; LEAs  are required to involve parents.

With this “significant victory for parent engagement” 5 comes the obligation and responsibility for parents to be authentic participants in the development and direction of schools. In the words of the Latino Family Literacy Project,6 “the expectation of LCAP and LCFF to improve student outcomes relies on Parent and Family Involvement.”

Systemic Changes

Specifically, the LCFF obligates LEAs to demonstrate “efforts to seek parent input in decision making at the district and each school site [and] promotion of parent participation in programs for unduplicated pupils  7 and special need subgroups.” 8 In their LCAPs, LEAs must “describe the process used to consult with parents . . . and how this consultation contributed to development of the LCAP or [its] annual update. . . . describe the stakeholder involvement process for the review, and describe its impact on the development of the annual update to LCAP goals, actions, services, and expenditures.” 9 This language from the official template for the plans makes it clear that parent and family engagement is not an empty gesture. LEAs must be able to demonstrate how and to what degree parents are involved and are contributing to the creation and design of school spending plans and programmatic decisions. LEAs will then be evaluated on the degree to which they promote and make the best use of this engagement.

A Challenge for Everyone

Changing the way things have been done for years is never easy. As one preliminary research report on the LCFF concludes, “Old habits of mind die slowly. District and county officials trained in complying with state rules have little experience in long-range, creative thinking . . . few districts [were] involved in true strategic planning. . . . A ‘mindset shift’ will take time.”10 Another report notes that, “With a seemingly endless list of priorities to tackle, many district leaders admit that parent engagement often falls to the bottom of the pile.”11

“This really is a shift in thinking,” says Christina Mills, parent of a child with a disability in Benicia, board member of DREDF,12 and State Board appointee to the California Advisory Commission on Special Education. “The change is in its infancy. Parents [of children with disabilities] don’t realize that we’re part of the LCFF subgroups. Some districts don’t even know they have to include kids with disabilities in conversations about their LCAPs. As a result, many students with disabilities are being ignored in those plans.”

Making a Difference

How can parents help to make sure that their engagement is a priority in their LEAs? As importantly, how can parents learn what they need to know in order to be constructive participants in the plans their schools and districts are developing? And how can they gain the confidence they need to actively participate on site councils and school boards and in other meetings that contribute to the development of LCAPs?

The first thing parents of students with disabilities can do is know that they are included in the LCFF. With that established, the next thing is to find the right questions to ask.

According to Kristin Wright, parent of a child with a disability, former chair of the California Advisory Commission on Special Education, and current State Board liaison for special education, “the key questions that stakeholders can bring to districts must reflect an embraced belief that ‘My child is a general education child first.’ All important questions grow out of that. We must speak the language of general education and know about the general education initiatives.

“Then parents need to find out what is happening in their district for all kids, and how the special education supports for their child are going to supplement this.” Wright gives the example of behavioral initiatives. “If your district has a whole-school PBIS13  effort, a good question to ask is how special education aligns with these efforts. Are special education teachers and paraprofessionals being trained with general educators? They should be. It’s not a separate system anymore. So we as parents must support—and, when necessary, ask for—that alignment.

“Then get involved. The Community Advisory Councils [CACs14] are our habit, but they’re not even the most local way to have a voice.” She encourages parents to “join advisory councils” but also “site councils. Arm yourself with the right language and the right data. Be a part of this cultural change.”

Nicole Shaddox, also a parent of a child with a disability, is a member of the Parent, Teacher, Student Association (PTSA) and school site council at Westmont High School in the Campbell Union High School District. “When my district was creating its LCAP, it took into consideration the concerns of the majority voices,” she says, referring to the interests promoted by the many parents in attendance whose children did not have an IEP. “I knew that I wanted my child’s best interests to be heard. So as parents of children with disabilities, we need to participate so that we can be a majority voice.

“I’m an advocate for my child because I want to show her how to be her own advocate. And now that I’ve learned how to help my own kids, I want to help other parents and children with disabilities—and to help our schools.” She encourages parents to “go to the district. Ask for parent information and ask for parent engagement meetings” if they aren’t already in place. “Also ask about trainings and plans to support parent involvement.”

Wright sees a great deal of potential in parent centers as additional sources of support for families in their LCAP involvement. “That’s another place parents can go to ask questions,” she says. “Ask Parent Training and Information Centers [PTIs 15], Family Resource Centers [FRCs16], and Family Empowerment Centers [FECs 17] for trainings, information, and supports on how to be an effective advocate as a general education parent—and an informed force for aligned and unified systems.”

Given the historically separate evolutions of general education and special education, Mills sees no overnight fix. She believes, though, in the “amazing potential that parents can have in the system if they know what is happening.” And if they know they are an included and important part of the process. 



  1. LEAs include school districts and charter schools.
  2. Increasing family engagement was one of the recommendations (page 49) of the California Task Force on Special Education. See
  3. Epstein, J., et al. (2009). School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  4. Families in Schools. (2015).Ready or Not: How California School Districts are Reimagining Parent Engagement in the Era of Local Control Funding Formula. Retrieved from (page 6).
  5. Cruz, O., & Flores, Y. (2014). Authentic Parent Engagement and the LCFF. CAFWD. Retrieved from
  6. The Latino Family Literacy Project is at
  7. “Unduplicated pupil” in LCFF language means that “each pupil is counted only once even if the pupil meets more than one of these [subgroup] criteria (EC sections 2574(b)(2) and 42238.02(b)(1)). See
  8. Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) Electronic Template. Retrieved from
  9. Ibid.
  10. Fensterwald, J. (2015). “Brown Urged to ‘Reaffirm the Vision’ of Funding Law.” EdSource. Retrieved from
  11. Families in Schools. Ibid. Page 11.
  12. DREDF: Disabilities Rights Education & Defense Fund. See
  13. PBIS: Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. See
  14. Community Advisory Council (CAC). The California Education Code (Part 30, Chapter 2, Article 7, 56190) requires each Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) to establish a CAC to serve in an advisory capacity to the board of education and special education administration on the implementation of the Local Plan.
  15. Go to to find the nearest PTI and CPRC.
  16. Go to ca-directory/ to find the nearest FRC.
  17. The California Department of Education lists the state's FECs at

Beginning at the Beginning

School districts in California are starting to erase many of the traditional boundaries between special education and general education. Some are providing scaffolded supports for students with and without identified disabilities in the same general education classroom. Others are delivering the same professional development to all teachers or creating teams of special and general educators to work together to ensure that all children succeed. Some districts start with a willing cohort of teachers in a high school or middle school. Others have visionary inclusionists in the earliest grades. How schools and districts start on the path toward more unified systems varies widely across the state.

But at some point, district leaders recognize the success of special education-general education collaboration and make a strategic and committed decision to introduce inclusive practices systematically throughout their grades. At this point, a pattern emerges: districts typically decide to begin this whole-system overhaul at the beginning, with their very youngest children.

Research supports the value of including children with and without disabilities in the same general education settings as early as possible. "High-quality inclusion can help young children make gains that are not only visible during preschool but also realized much later in life. Further supporting these outcomes are parent and practitioners' perceptions of how exposure to inclusion from an early age can positively influence all children's behaviors and skills."1

The U. S. Department of Education concurs: "It is well documented that the beginning years of all children's lives are critical for building the early foundations of learning and wellness needed for success in school and later in life. During these years, children's brains develop rapidly, influenced by the experiences they share with their families, teachers, peers, and in their communities. Like all children, it is critical for children with disabilities to be exposed to a variety of rich experiences where they can learn in the context of play and everyday interactions and engage with their peers with and without disabilities."2

As they work to create more inclusive systems, many school leaders in California also cite the importance of changing slowly and gradually when working to unify larger systems—with one grade at a time, for example—and working patiently through consistent, focused staff development to change practices and mindsets. These approaches are central to creating change that lasts.

Starting Early

Inclusive preschool was already in place when Orange Unified School District (OUSD) committed to a gradual, whole-district inclusive model. Julie McNealy, teacher quality coordinator at Orange, talks about what she sees as the advantage of starting early: Very young children, she says, "don't have those misconceptions about students with disabilities. It's amazing when you see them come into the classroom. The kids just accept [children with disabilities] as their peers. That's why we felt it was so very important to start with the little ones. And then every year we add another grade level so that every year [inclusion] just becomes a part of Orange."

With inclusive preschool efforts in place, the district was more readily able to expand its efforts by offering elementary staff the opportunity to "actually see our students in action, what the classroom actually looks like, what the children could do," says Bree Tippets, coordinator of special education prekindergarten for the district.

Sara Beggs, the district's inclusion coordinator, says that this direct experience of inclusion "was really beneficial" for the staff. "They were able to see the actual students who were going to be included in kindergarten in the following year and see what students [with disabilities] were actually able to do—and see that they could be very successful in the preschool program—and that they could be similarly successful in kindergarten.

"Our students are already being exposed to those types of instructional strategies that are going to continue on into kindergarten," says Beggs. "That foundation is very important. This would not have been as strong without what Bree and her team have been doing over the past few years." It's been a continuous, systemic change, she says. "What they have already done has been phenomenal."

Going Slowly and Carefully

Lori Stillings is the assistant superintendent of special education at Tustin USD and has been an important guide for Orange USD as it has expanded its inclusive efforts. Stillings attributes part of her district's success in introducing and maintaining inclusive practices to its careful pace. Tustin introduced inclusive settings "one grade at a time," starting in its earliest grades. And "one year at a time. We're taking small steps so that we can work out any kinks."

Stillings maintains a clear and disciplined attitude. "Our focus now is advancing this [inclusive model] through fifth grade. We're constantly evaluating. We'll see where we go. Right now we're just focusing on elementary."

Shaping Mindsets

Sharon Keplinger, now a retired preschool director, was central to Palo Alto USD's efforts to secure inclusive, neighborhood preschools for its children with disabilities—and to jump-starting the district's journey toward greater inclusion overall. Palo Alto started by making it possible for prekindergarten children with disabilities to go school in their neighborhoods.

"We had lots of different pre-K programs on one site," she recalls. "And we had one SDC* program on a site; we'd moved it [to a separate site] and were looking for a way to bring it back on so that the children in the program could be with their peers" who did not have a disability. With the guidance of Holly Wade, then director of special education, Palo Alto made the commitment to "neighborhood preschools" for all students; the district's inclusive efforts have grown from there. Wade's intent was to make "changes to the preschool, with the goal that we would move toward a neighborhood school model at the elementary level. We started building the potential for elementary school students to stay in place."

Staff at Palo Alto talk about the importance of the mindset of the teaching staff when introducing inclusive classrooms and schools. Anne Brown, principal at Barron Park Elementary School, says, "If students with disabilities are on the class list, that shifts the mindset. It takes a while. But now that we're in years two and three [of having inclusive classrooms], the change is remarkable." There's been a shift, according to Brown, among teachers from "Who are my included students?" to "These are my students."

"I would say that we really hit a home run on this about three years in," says Wade. "Every child started the day in a general education classroom. Each child was a member of that classroom—on the birthday list; on the Valentine's Day list; on the field trip list; in the class picture—those little things that matter so much and that we had never been able to reconcile before. It was unintentional and certainly not in any way something that people didn't want to happen. It just wasn't happening seamlessly, because the kids weren't there." Now they are.


  1. Henninger, W. R., & Gupta, S. S. (2014). "How Do Children Benefit from Inclusion?" In First Steps to Preschool Inclusion: How to Jumpstart Your Programwide Plan, Sarika S. Gupta, S. S., Henninger, W. S., & Vinh, M. E. Retrieved from
  2. U. S. Department of Health and Human Services & U. S. Department of Education. (2015). Policy Statement on Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs. Retrieved from


Connecting the Dots: How Early Childhood Assessment Informs High Quality Instruction for Infants, Toddlers, and Preschool Children Symposium. (2015). Archived at

Learn more about the desired results for children and families and California's Desired Results Developmental Profile, a system for educators to document the progress of children and families, at


Teaching as a Team Sport

Schools are typically comprised of "fragmented fiefdoms," says Pam Winton, research professor at the School of Education, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The consequences of this fragmentation are legion, but Howard Adelman, director of the School Mental Health Project at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), points specifically to the liability for teachers. "Currently, teachers are left mostly to their own devices in dealing with students' learning, behavior, and emotional problems,"1 writes Adelman. "A major escape valve in the past was for them to refer students out to special education. Now, with inclusion as policy and minimal system changes that enable them to be successful, teachers are expected to handle the problems alone (for the most part). We keep stressing that 'Teachers cannot do it alone!' (And should not be expected to do so.) Even the best teacher can't do the job alone and meet high standard outcomes."2

Challenging Beliefs

Changing the culture of fragmentation, Winton says, requires educators to "shift roles and expectations," if schools are going to become unified systems where all children learn to the best of their abilities. Winton delivered a keynote address at the Inclusion Collaborative State Conference in San Jose in October 2015 and talked about the importance of "a commitment to work together across these clearly recognized, fragmented fiefdoms."

Wayne Sailor, the director of the Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation (SWIFT) Center at the University of Kansas, was another keynote speaker at the San Jose event. SWIFT represents an unprecedented national effort to bring together separate educational factions. Its mission statement is to eliminate "the silos in education by bridging general and specialized education to create powerful learning opportunities for students and teachers and promote active, engaged partnerships among families and community members."3 As he spoke about the factional nature of special education in the United States, Sailor said, "It doesn't work. All of the research on traditional special education and its influence on school success and quality of life shows that [a favorable result] is not there."

Sailor asks educators to reconsider their understanding of inclusion. "It's always been about placement. The effort on the part of inclusionists has been about getting students out of one place into another. When you look at models of inclusion that have surfaced, they are placement-based outcomes. They don't look good. The data don't support them. We need to think about inclusion as something much bigger than just being in the general education classroom.

"How can we organize all of the resources available at a school," asks Sailor rhetorically, "so that all kids benefit?" His answer: "You rearrange the environment so that the effort to instruct that student is given increasing levels of intensity and works toward a breakthrough. That's where we're going with this SWIFT Center."

And that's where many schools and districts in California are going as they promote multitiered systems of support4 and teaching as a team effort to ensure that no teacher has to "do it alone."

Changing Classrooms

Collaborating, co-teaching, team teaching, support teaching, coaching, and other kinds of creative strategies and approaches to how teachers work together inside and outside of classrooms are becoming standard practices in many schools. The approaches are a little different in each district that promotes and supports them, and their shape and level of implementation also differ depending upon the needs of the students, the readiness of the staff, and the number of years that the district has been working to create this more unified approach to instruction. But the controlling mantras for districts that are in the early and middle stages of efforts to reform their systems reflect the beliefs that "These are all our kids; they all belong" and "one teacher can't do it alone."

Changing Identities

From its inception, CHIME charter school was designed to be inclusive. The school's director, Erin Studer, talks about the challenge of "identity" that educators have to face as each school and district changes from an archipelago of "fragmented fiefdoms" to a single system of coherent educational effort. "There's a sociological phenomenon called 'I am my job,'" Studer says. "That's sometimes that makes change in schools so very hard. You ask somebody, 'what do you do?' and they say, 'I'm a special educator.' That [answer] comes with a whole construct in someone's mind about what a special education teacher does: an expert in learning and behavior in a school in one little room with 8 to 12 kids, and that's where they spend their day. People who go into the profession have that as their mental model of what they do and are. They are their job.

"So when you tell them, 'No. What we want you to do is co-teach and go into these classrooms and work with all students and use your learning expertise to be of service to every kid in this classroom,' that pushes on the construct, that mental conception of who they are. Just as saying to a gen ed teacher, 'You're going to serve everybody; we're going to give you a partner; you're going to collaborate with them; you can't just invent every lesson for this classroom on your own,' pushes on their idea of the profession that they chose."

School leaders are pushing on these constructs; and many teachers, both general and special educators, are embracing the direction.

Holly Wade, chief student services officer, has worked to expand inclusive opportunities for students with disabilities in the Palo Alto Unified School District. Moving to an inclusive model required her staff to create "a whole new way to think about education and access," said Wade, when she spoke at the inclusion conference. "Why not presume competence? Students always surprise us. They require us to learn and to set aside our own judgment. All students can learn and access the curriculum. It just looks different." How teachers support that access looks different in every instance, as well.

Success hangs on the "how."

"We build bridges between the education specialist and the general education teacher," says Amy Sheward, inclusion teacher on special assignment (TOSA) at Palo Alto. "Once we sit down and plan together about how we are going to move the kids forward, it's no longer 'your students versus my students.'" She acknowledges that "It's a culture shock for people. This is hard work. But we take baby steps and make it clear that this is where we're going; this is what we're going to do. You also have to create an environment where people can take that one step forward. As we differentiate for students, we also differentiate for staff. You can't roll out an initiative without learning the new skills necessary."

Benefiting All Students

Orange Unified School District is currently introducing, one grade level at a time, a co-teaching model that consists of two teachers in the classroom—one general educator and one special educator working together. Sara Beggs, coordinator of inclusive learning for the district, explained how the district became committed to this approach: "We're responsible for closing the achievement gap," she says. "But it was actually widening. So a few years ago the district required special education and general education [staff] to be trained in the same instructional strategies, the same curriculum. General educators know content. Special educators are the experts in the accommodations, modifications, and supports necessary for the students to access that content. So why not put the content experts and the specialized academic instruction experts together to ensure our students benefit in the least restrictive setting?"

Finding Proof

When staff at Orange are asked to provide proof of the effectiveness of general education-special education inclusion and co-teaching models, they don't have to go far. Elsie Simonovski, district administrator and now a high school principal, gathered data from her co-teaching efforts and with that material wrote a quantitative study as her doctoral dissertation. It showed that "co-teaching assisted in closing the academic achievement gap" and "appears to be a promising, effective instructional model and option" for students with disabilities.

Simonovski is quick to talk about the "many benefits" of a co-teaching classroom for students without disabilities. It "gives them understanding and flexibility," she says. "They develop patience, and in my opinion they develop a deeper appreciation for what they have and are able to do as they see other students struggle."

Denise MacAllister, superintendent of pupil services in Orange, appreciates having special and general education teachers together to create a team in the classroom. "We used to find that, when a teacher was struggling with a student, they would say, 'We need to test; we need to assess them for special education.' Now that we have our teams working together—two teachers together or another teacher supporting in and out of the classroom—we're able to provide interventions within that setting without teachers immediately assuming that the child won't fit in and must be assessed. The special education teacher is in there supporting all kids, obviously emphasizing supports to our targeted special education students with disabilities, but they also have this ability to see all of these other students within the classroom. They're in a position to notice when a student isn't making the anticipated progress. So this [struggling] student can now come and join a small group. And we can monitor his progress before jumping too quickly to assess." This, Simonovski points to, is another significant advantage of co-teaching for students in general education. Because of the scaffolded instruction, services, and supports that a special educator in a co-teaching model can provide, a student who is struggling can receive individualized early intervening services that perhaps could "get him over the hump" of a struggle and go on to resume regular academic progress.

Spreading Practice

Etiwanta USD is another district that employs a variety of blended service delivery models. Charlayne Sprague, Etiwanda's assistant superintendent of instruction and pupil services, is confident of the benefits of co-teaching in inclusive settings because the achievement of those students with disabilities "far surpasses the achievement of the students who are in a pull-out [program]." She is not forcing teachers to co-teach. But she is making it possible. And she is seeing the practice spread on its own merits.

"For us, student achievement is key," she says, "and we're looking at our co-teaching models where student achievement is high for special ed students, and we're looking at schools that have blended or inclusive models. When we meet with our principals, we talk about 'what is your plan for improved achievement for this population of students?' It could be special ed, it could be English language learners—whatever population we're looking at having you improve." It's natural, she says, for educators to want to learn "what your peers are doing, what your colleagues are doing that is creating such success for these students and to ask, 'how can I replicate that?'" Co-teaching appears to be one of those models.

Staff at Palo Alto agree. When other teachers hear about co-teaching efforts, "they say, 'I want this, too,'" said Sheward. "Now co-teaching is the standard," says Wade. "It's a great alternative to a special day class, especially in the areas of content that are very difficult to deliver outside of the general ed environment—biology, for example, where you're doing labs and you need to be in that environment to maximize the learning."

Changing Thoughtfully

A great deal of careful consideration is going into these collaborative teaching efforts. Wade says, "That kid in the back of the room with an [instructional assistant or paraprofessional]: I call that the 'most restrictive environment,'" she says, spinning the IDEA mandate of "least restrictive environment," which is sometimes the primary rationale for the kind of placement where a child is physically in a classroom but not truly part of the class. Sailor agrees and says, "That paraprofessional is interrupting the spontaneous natural connections and social life of the classroom."

Catherine Vittorio, who provides professional development for Etiwanda and assists in developing the district's co-teaching model, talks about co-teaching as its own skill with its own learning curve—one that is worth mastering. As the co-teachers learn each other's ability and responsibility, "they start to blend. I loved it."

Vittorio co-taught as a special educator "for I-don't-know-how-many years," she says, before she started teaching teachers. The co-teaching effort involved "communication on our part, all of us knowing our standards and knowing our students. We couldn't fly by the seat of our pants. We presented the best," she says, for all of the students.

"It becomes a dance," says Beth Freer, special education director for the district. Sprague adds, "Two teachers working together in a classroom—when it's done well, it's amazing."



  1. Howard Adelman. Personal communications. September, 2015.
  2. Adelman, H. "Improving Student Outcomes, Enhancing School Climate: Teachers Can't Do it Alone!"
  3. See the SWIFT Web site at
  4. See the Spring 2015 insert to The Special EDge at


Collaborative Practices to Promote Student Success, updated by Deborah Herburger, December 2015, and created by Lynne Cook, June 2011, is at

The Co-Teaching Connection, by co-teaching expert Marilyn Friend, is at

Benefits of Co-Teaching for Students with Special Needs, from the Friendship Circle, is at

Murowski, W. (Winter 2005). "Addressing Diverse Needs Through Co-Teaching: Take Baby Steps!" Kappa Delta Pi Record, 77–82.

Lydia Rose: A Parent's Perspective.


Transformation at Lake Elsinore

Lake Elsinore Unified School District "backed into the concept" of a unified and multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS), says Kip Meyer, assistant superintendent, personnel support services. The district already had in place Response to Intervention (RtI), a three-tiered approach to providing increasingly intensive academic interventions and supports. "But teachers were finding behavior and social-emotional challenges," says Meyer. "They wanted help."

Lake Elsinore also wanted a new goal: Full inclusion within one system of education for all students—with and without disabilities—in the least restrictive environment and "immediate, targeted interventions" for students who need support.

Addressing Behavior

In June 2014, the district offered a three-day workshop on social-emotional learning for 100 participants, including teams of general and special educators from all 14 of the district's elementary schools along with parents. When it was over, the district looked at intervention in a new, more holistic way. "Now," says Meyer, "we're broadening the scope of intervention to support all kids in their academic and social-emotional learning."

Achieving the new goal through an MTSS approach required a philosophical shift for school personnel, and not everyone in the district signed on immediately. "In the beginning this was seen as 'special ed is doing this,'" says Donna Wolter, director of special education. "There was some resistance from both special and general education teachers. But the workshop helped everyone understand the value of the MTSS approach," she says. "They saw that it was not just about how to support special education but about how to support all learners."

While full inclusion is the long-term objective, the district is "moving slowly" in that direction, Wolter says, and implementing it in just two elementary schools this year—in part because, in order to make both inclusion and MTSS a reality, the district has to make sure two key constituencies are onboard: teachers and parents.

Support for Teachers

"Inclusionary practice was a whole different way of talking about special education," says Bill Cavanaugh, president of the Lake Elsinore Teachers Association. The major concerns of teachers, says Elizabeth Brehm, a general education second grade teacher, were the "supports [that] have to be there and the need for professional development."

Since the teachers already were supporting academics with RtI, the district focused on training in managing behavior issues. Greg Cleave, assistant director of special education, leads a two-day workshop during which "we discuss typical behavior problems and how we can deal with them now in order to keep the students [with disabilities] in [a general education] class." The program, he says, "is a systematic approach to teaching kids social skills."

For this training, "we originally selected key people at each site to participate," says Meyer. "Now we've extended it to school staffs, bus drivers, anyone who comes in contact with the kids." More than 800 staff members have taken the workshop thus far; the current plan is to have every elementary teacher in the district trained by the end of the school year.


In support of a new culture—where the whole child is the focus and where inclusion is the norm—the district carved out time at individual school sites for professional learning communities (PLCs), where all staff members who teach at the same grade level can meet to share experiences and discuss how to support students. "It's important to build relationships first before talking about individual students," says Program Specialist Shannon Pinck. "Special ed teachers may think 'general ed teachers don't want our kids.'" And general education teachers may be anxious about the challenge of having students with disabilities in their classroom, thinking the administration is looking for miracles. "To general ed teachers we say, 'We're looking for progress, and we'll give you support.'"

PLCs at elementary sites take place during the school day. The district provides physical education teachers to manage classes while other teachers meet. School leadership is not dictating what happens in the PLCs "The meetings are run by grade-level leadership," says Allison Mativa, a resource teacher at William Collins School. "The PLC comes from the teacher up, not from the top down."

Partnership with Parents

Delia Lopez moved into a little office at district headquarters early in the fall of 2015, but she wasn't a district employee. Lopez headed up TASK (Team of Advocates for Special Kids), a Parent Training and Information Center that facilitates communication between the district and parents. "Our mission is to make sure parents are empowered and know how to access the system," says Lopez. "It's important for families [of students with disabilities] to understand that their students will be mainstreamed. We give them the knowledge and the tools to advocate for their children."

While she has since left TASK, the office remains, as do TASK's staff and its parent focus. The group offers workshops in English and Spanish for parents on such topics as bullying prevention and tips on how to participate in their children's Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings.

Meyer says the district and TASK "are a partnership. They asked to come here to forge a stronger relationship with us and to be closer to our parents." Lopez agreed that "it's all about collaboration. We are grateful to see how Lake Elsinore has opened its doors to TASK."

Workshops also are offered monthly by the MTSS Parents Network, a partnership of schools, parents, and the community that grew out of the initial three-day social-emotional training "to support the education of all students." The district provides the venue, food, and childcare while parents attend programs on such topics as cyber-bullying and technical education career paths. The network, says Stacy Begin, regional representative of the California Teachers Association, provides a constructive, productive pathway for parents to make a difference in the school lives of their children.

The Inclusion Challenge

With teachers and parents playing integral parts in the planning process, the district started full inclusion last fall at two elementary schools, Elsinore Elementary and Tuscany Hills, which had volunteered to pilot the program.

At Elsinore, Principal Rita Post waited six weeks after the start of the school year before implementing inclusion. "We needed to know what the triggers are for student behavior and let the general ed teachers know. We wanted to set them up for success," she says. And once the program began, "We found that more and more kids could be in general ed." She points to five fourth graders who had been in SDC* classes all day and are now in general classrooms 80 percent of their school day with support.

The school has added an alternative education program for students with behavioral issues and a pre-K inclusion class for four-year-olds, where they work on behavior management and communication skills.

Post says it hasn't all been smooth. As the district follows its "push-in model" for students with disabilities, integrating them into general education classrooms to the greatest extent possible, "Some kids, having been sheltered, are struggling to know how to behave," Post says. "But having support makes it more possible" for them to succeed in the general education classroom.

Inclusion teacher Brent Wigand has seen that success close up. While problem behavior was common at first, former SDC students who have been included in general education classes now "behave better, calm down, and have more self-esteem," he says. "When they feel better about themselves, their fluency in reading increases, too."

At Tuscany Hills, one of the district's top-performing schools, Principal Jeff Marks says inclusion has been "stressful but so rewarding." Every teacher embraced the MTSS model, Marks says, "but how do you set expectations for both RSP** and general ed teachers? How do you meet the challenge of finding time for collaboration? How is the curriculum adjusted to meet student needs in a push-in model? Every teacher is impacted by this model every day." Teachers were able to meet these challenges of inclusion, he says, "because they were part of the planning process. Now they look out for each other in a collaborative environment."

Inclusion's Benefits

In Veronica Harirchi's second grade classroom, co-teaching is the norm. With an inclusion specialist in class, everyone benefits, she says. "The special ed students seem to attain, even surpass, their IEP goals when they are included, and the general ed kids learn empathy. They want to help." Marks tells of a fifth grade student who says she now wants to be an occupational therapist because of her experience helping a fellow student who uses a wheelchair.

Marks and his team spent a lot of time studying how inclusion would work, and that meant putting a focus on data. "We're constantly tracking, monitoring each student," he says. "We can't say we're going to mainstream every student, but we look at each one and assess whether they can emotionally handle the academic rigor, social context, and behavioral expectations. It's about finding the right fit for that kid."

Spreading the Practice

While Elsinore and Tuscany Hills were the district's official starting points for full inclusion, other schools are beginning to embrace the same philosophy. "Sites are now asking for MTSS instead of us coming to them and saying we're going to do this," says Kate Dampier, special education program specialist. "Many schools already have the culture to support MTSS."

That culture and its rewards are apparent at Temescal High School, where its award-winning "Push In for RSP Success" program has reduced behavioral referrals among ninth graders from 67 to 36 and among twelfth graders from 41 to 15 between 2012 and 2015—nearly a 50 percent reduction in the first case and nearly a 65 percent reduction in the second.

New Roles for Educators

In addition, says resource teacher Heather Hernandez, with inclusion the school has seen an increase in attendance among special education students. Hernandez and the other four resource teachers lead small-group interventions when they aren't supporting students and co-teaching in general education classrooms.

Their home base is room 602, known as The Hub, where they assist any student, with or without an IEP. "General education students ask to work in The Hub, too. We're part of the school culture," says resource teacher Danielle Vargas. That's likely the result of all the staff development that preceded the push-in effort, including training for all teachers on co-teaching and training specifically for general educators on understanding disabilities. As a result, communication between general education and special education teachers "is pretty seamless," says English teacher Tom Collins. And having another set of eyes in the classroom "affords us the ability to collaborate naturally and immediately if a student is struggling."

The Long View

Schools like Temescal are moving ahead with inclusion, but districtwide implementation of one system for all students "is a long process," says Meyer, and likely will take 10 years. But it's already yielding some positive results. For example, says Wolter, "We used to have 40 kids in nonpublic schools where they had no opportunity for mainstreaming or seeing positive role models." Thanks to the establishment of alternative education classes at school sites, that number is down to 17, and the students now in district schools "are building relationships."

Lake Elsinore has embarked on a challenging new course. It's still early in the game, but "we're seeing a difference," says Meyer. "It's worth the challenge."


*SDC: Special Day Class, a setting for students with moderate to severe disabilities.

**RSP: a "resource specialist," a special education teacher; also refers to separate classrooms for students with mild to moderate disabilities.




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