Essential Schools as Inclusive Education Leaders

All learning communities contain a multidimensional spectrum of strengths and weaknesses. By embracing this truth in their values and practices, Essential schools are well poised to respond effectively to the challenge of inclusion. Students in inclusive educational settings take many paths toward the achievement of meaningful educational and personal goals. Inclusion reorganizes a school’s environment: it opens to all students the benefits of special education resources and it provides unrestricted access to students with special education diagnoses and other cognitive, physical, cultural, and language differences.

Inclusive education is the commitment to and practice of all students participating in educational experiences through appropriate design, support and accommodation. Essential schools are structured to meet the significant challenges of inclusive education, and they are likely to reap its rewards. Drawing on decades of examples of CES practices that promote personalization, equity, and academic challenge— teacher as generalist, common planning time, team teaching, creating the habits of mind of lifelong learners, interdisciplinary curriculum, small school autonomies, applying high expectations and standards to all, flexibility with the structures of architecture and schedules, commitment to continuous improvement through cycles of inquiry, authentic assessment, and more—Essential schools have the potential to be places where the conditions for inclusion “done right” are possible.

Designing for Inclusion

Yet like other comprehensive reforms, inclusion is difficult to retrofit. With many schools now starting new or emerging fully restructured as a result of conversion, school planners have the opportunity to build inclusion into school design. “What works best,” says Anne Clark, Humanities teacher and Curriculum and Special Education Coordinator at Boston Arts Academy, “is to take the best of special education, that personalization and instruction, and apply that to everyone.” A design for exclusion, manifested by the tendency to divide and conquer, shaped much of twentieth century American education. Harmful judgments about race, class, and who ought to benefit from education prompted schools to sort students by ability. And while many educators (though far from all) now believe that tracking is destructive, many of the same well-intended educators think that inclusion is ideal yet impractical. Some go further, asserting that it may even be harmful and inequitable. As Anne Clark notes, “People too quickly go to extremes. It’s too easy to say that inclusion isn’t good for everyone.” If inclusion is attempted in large, impersonal settings in which teachers lack appropriate professional development, common planning time, pedagogical and structural autonomy, and other such necessary preconditions for successful inclusion, students and teachers may well be frustrated, especially given the high-stakes assessment atmosphere that pervades most schools.

Even in Essential schools, more likely to have conditions that allow inclusion to flourish, the work of creating environments that support all learners can be daunting. Abby Gordon, Inclusion teacher at New York City’s School of the Future, comments, “The only downfall to inclusion is that it can be hard to pinpoint kids’ specific issues as opposed to working with them in the old resource room. But it’s worth it, even though there are days when I think that all special education teachers lose it and think that if they can’t pull kids out, they can’t do it. But being around people who are constantly pushing themselves to serve the students the best that we can makes me realize that this work is possible.” Anne Clark agrees, observing, “The biggest benefit of inclusion is that you get rid of labels. You work on being flexible and intuitive enough to work with each individual. Kids come in complicated packages. If you spend a lot of time labeling and sorting, you might miss some of those issues.”

With awareness that inclusion encompasses the endless varieties of cognition, physical qualities and culture, this issue of Horace focuses on inclusion that creates full access for students with language-based learning disabilities as a way to focus specifically on issues of teaching and learning. Students with learning disabilities vividly demonstrate that we all learn differently, and that in a setting that honors all students’ uniqueness, disability can become difference and strength, rather than a liability.

Essential Schools’ Capacity for Inclusion: Examples

Personal learning plans and exhibitions are two vivid examples of Essential school hallmarks that make inclusive education possible. Personal learning plans, or PLPs, adapted in part from the Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that are legally required for students with disabilities, demonstrate how “the future is in the margins,” as David Rose and Anne Meyer wrote in “The Future is in the Margins: The Role of Technology and Disability in Educational Reform.” What was once intended as a practice to support students with disabilities turns out to improve the learning experiences of all students. Indeed, according to the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), research has demonstrated that changes that give a wide range of learners access to a class’ content raise scores for all students. Mike Abraham, longtime elementary special education teacher and now Pupil Services Administrator for the Hilliard City Schools outside Columbus, Ohio concurs, noting, “When you look at special education students, you need to remember that what works for them may work well with lots of other students. With inclusion, regular education kids benefit just as much.” (See “Universal Design: A Key Concept for Inclusive School Success” for more on features of inclusive education designed to allow multiple paths to learning.)

Demonstrations of mastery through authentic assessment help teachers negotiate the tension between holding all students to high standards and the inevitable differences in individual approaches and efforts. Michael Patron, the former head of the Crefeld School, an independent Essential school in Philadelphia with 100 students, stresses that authentic assessment is vital for students in inclusive schools. “Graduation by exhibition, which focuses on the end product and less on the process that any individual uses, allows us to be very flexible in giving students the options, time and support that they might need as individuals to meet those graduation exhibitions,” Patron notes. Authentic assessment allows students to leverage their strengths – humor, quick thinking, artistic mastery, athletic ability, leadership, self-awareness, empathy. Being part of a learning community that honors strengths and allows students latitude to demonstrate their competence and learning is vital for persistence in school and post-school success. As Anne Clark says, “There is not an easy division in our school between the ‘abled’ kids and the ‘not abled’ kids because here, we are all artistically abled. Some of the kids who are the most academically needy are the most artistically abled. That kid who can’t read is the star of the theater department. So we focus on strength as a route to overall achievement.”

Inclusive education is inextricably linked to a school’s commitment to equity. Inclusion both honors and preserves diversity, without which we cannot coexist. While many argue that we need to remove labels to reduce judgment, it’s also important to for everyone in a school community to be able to see what everyone else knows and can do. If students aren’t learning together, they won’t know that everyone has both tremendous challenges and gifts. Inclusive education forces us to see each other, to see past visible and invisible qualities, ensuring that teachers and students know themselves and each other as learners and as whole people. “Inclusion gives kids an opportunity to think about themselves as lifelong learners,” observes Abby Gordon. “At School of the Future, students who have been in special education classrooms all their lives have some initial fear of being with everyone else. But soon they see that all students see strengths and weaknesses.” Brittany Pry, a Crefeld senior, says that inclusive education has given her self-confidence and self-knowledge. “I have skills to advocate for myself now, and I know what I need. Now that I am looking at colleges, I know how I am as a learner. I don’t want to go to a really big college, and I am looking for schools with learning services that will benefit me.”

Inclusive schools that focus on a group’s strengths also have the capacity to reduce incapacitating fear and anxiety. Michael Patron says, “We get a lot of kids who on the surface have behavioral or emotional problems, but the root of that is a long history of schools having failed them. Being in a place where they can be successful and use their strengths, not in a deficit model that focuses on their weaknesses, they feel good about their gifts and are allowed to leverage those in a way that best serves them. Many of the emotional problems clear up. Students are still left to deal with the learning problems, but they can’t get to learning until they deal with emotional issues.”

What an Inclusion Teacher Does

Abby Gordon says that her work as an inclusion teacher allows her to focus on students and support teachers as they find ways for each student to meet standards and goals. “I meet with teachers to consult with them about their lesson plans to make sure that their lesson will meet all needs,” says Gordon. “Sometimes in the classroom, we will co-teach. If students are doing group or independent work, I move around, working with them and at the same time doing assessment. I go to each class with a notebook and assess every aspect. Are they asking questions? Are they sleepy? Are they active? Then I discuss what I found with the teacher. Maybe that lesson went over heads. Even though I am there to assess special education students, it’s a fairly good measure of the class.” Gordon continued, “The students have no idea what my position is. I call myself a learning specialist. I am very self-conscious about students feeling singled out – if they perceive that there’s a stigma to working with me, they will stop seeing themselves as learners. Students, special education students and everyone else, come to my office all the time. They think I am there for every single one of them, and in fact I am.”


“The Future is in the Margins: The Role of Technology and Disability in Educational Reform,” by David Rose and Anne Meyer,

Related Resources

In “Enabling Inclusive Education: Challenges and Dilemmas,” British researcher Susie Miles from the Enabling Education Network suggests a pegs-and-holes metaphor to envision inclusive education. In noninclusive schools, students with disabilities are viewed as “square pegs” in a realm of general education “round holes.” Students with differences either have to be forced to fit the hole, or they must be sorted aside. Miles encourages a vision of education that is much richer and more complex – an assortment of pegs and holes, each having its place but no two shaped exactly the same. An inclusive classroom makes it possible for all learners, each with their individual differences, to thrive. “Enabling Inclusive Education: Challenges and Dilemmas” is available at

Horace 19.1, “Elements of Smallness Create Conditions for Success” discusses personal learning plans at sevearl CES schools:

Horace 15.5, “Student Development: How Essential School Practices and DesignsCan Help” looks at how Essential schools support students who develop intellectually and emotionally at different rates: