Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Socially Inclusive Schools Benefit All Students

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By Terry Pickeral, Project UNIFY Senior Consultant

Through my work with Special Olympics Project UNIFY, I recently had the privilege of visiting elementary, middle and high schools throughout the nation. I was able to see how they integrate social inclusion and the impact they make on all students. The corresponding Social Inclusion Lessons From the Field report can be found by clicking here.

One of the unique characteristics of Special Olympics Project UNIFY is a focus on creating socially inclusive schools by ensuring all students are encouraged and supported to be “agents of change” where all students are capable of being leaders. All students deserve the opportunity to experience an engaging school and community environment that recognizes their gifts and shares them with others.

You notice the focus on all students, not some students, not those students, not these students but all students. Thus social inclusion requires teachers, staff, administrators and school partners to ensure all students are included, engaged and feel a full sense of school connectedness and belonging.

Each of the elementary, middle/junior high and high schools we visited built on its own strengths, specific social inclusion opportunities and champions committed to social inclusion. Therefore, while the characteristics of social inclusion are consistent across all school settings, the Project UNIFY strategies that are implemented vary from school to school. This provides a diverse set of models and options for other schools to consider, adopt and/or adapt.

The following 10 characteristics were consistently present in the 21 schools visited:

  • Social inclusion is a purposeful process and is woven into the fabric of the school.
  • Efforts are student-centered.
  • Social inclusion is valued, nurtured and supported across formal and informal settings.
  • Consistent opportunities are provided to engage students in developing, implementing, and sustaining a wide range of inclusive activities.
  • Shared leadership is embraced, and includes a broad range of stakeholders.
  • Leaders are intentionally cultivated beyond a passionate few.
  • There is a vision and purpose for social inclusion that is understood and shared by the school community as work that is core to the school/district’s mission.
  • Social inclusion is about all students being supported in contributing in meaningful ways, not some being the “helped” and others being the “helpers.”
  • Students, teachers, and administrators value and engage in ongoing reflection to guide continuous improvement.
  • Administrative support is concrete, visible, and active at both school and district levels.

As schools consider creating and sustaining socially inclusive school climates and opportunities for students to fully develop, these 10 characteristics can be used as both guidelines and indicators of progress and success. The result is that all students benefit!

Terry Pickeral, president of Cascade Educational Consultants, has extensive experience in policy development, advocacy, education reform, youth leadership, teaching and learning strategies, education collaborations and civic development. His commitment is to ensuring schools create and sustain quality teaching and learning environments for all students to be successful in school and contribute to their communities as active principled citizens.