Willard Middle School recognized for inclusive education

Andrew Kuo/Senior Staff

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Berkeley’s Willard Middle School has been selected by education researchers as a model of inclusive education.

The Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation, or SWIFT, an initiative led by educational researchers from the University of Kansas, selected Willard and five other U.S. schools for their use of “inclusive education,” said Wayne Sailor, a professor in the University of Kansas’ School of Education and director of the SWIFT Center.

Inclusive education is a classroom model in which students of all learning types, such as gifted, special education and English as a Second Language students, learn in one general classroom setting rather than under separate programs, with the idea that all students mutually benefit from the shared learning environment.

“A big problem is that if you go into a typical low-performing school, there are lots of resources that could help, but they don’t connect with each other — special education being an example,” Sailor said. “It looks for its own resources and provides a system only for those identified as such.”

The six schools chosen by SWIFT are already successfully operating on an inclusive model and will be studied by Sailor and his affiliates so the advances these schools demonstrate can be applied elsewhere.

At Willard, inclusive education has been around for 11 years, said Willard Middle School Principal Robert Ithurburn.

“There is not so much an ‘us-them’ mentality,” Ithurburn said of the learning environment at Willard. “I think it’s more of a real-world situation.”

In the United States, there has been a trend toward including more students in general education classrooms, which has been accelerating for several decades, said Jennifer Russell, a graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education who is now a professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

At Willard, students with severe disabilities have an instructional aid with them all day long, and there are teachers’ aids who check in on particular students throughout the day, said Jessica Lee, Willard’s teacher librarian. Lee is also a parent of a Willard Middle School student.

Teachers may also practice “modified education,” in which students of differing abilities can be given parallel assignments, with a co-teacher focusing on modifying the lesson for others based on learning needs, she added.

An increasing number of educators, including SWIFT researchers, tout the benefits of an inclusive classroom model over a segregated one, but it’s a model with potential that is not always realized, Russell said.

With $24.5 million in grant money from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs, SWIFT will spend now until October researching the six inclusive model schools, Sailor said.

As compensation for cooperation with researchers, each of the six model schools will receive a one-time payment of $16,500, Sailor said. He added that the schools additionally benefit from getting national recognition on the researchers’ website.

The schools will continue working and perfecting their model of education in the coming months.

“We’re excited to find out what we can do to be stronger, taking strategies and techniques from the other five schools,” Ithurburn said.

Contact Christine Tyler at [email protected].