This Is Who We Are and What We Do: A Case Study of Two Districts Exemplifying Inclusivity

This Is Who We Are and What We Do: A Case Study of Two Districts Exemplifying Inclusivity


A group of students and an educator walking down an elementary school hallway. They are smiling and talking to each other.

Inequitable outcomes for students with disabilities reflect deep injustices within our education system and, indeed, within society more broadly. According to the most recent data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study (Sanford et al., 2011; Wagner et al., 2006) and National Center for Education Statistics (2022), students with disabilities are less likely than their peers without disabilities to graduate from high school and enroll in and complete postsecondary education at 4-year colleges (see Table 1). This is especially the case for students with significant cognitive disabilities. “Significant cognitive disability” is not a specific category identified in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004). Instead, it reflects a population of students with at least one other existing IDEA identification (e.g., intellectual disability, autism, multiple disabilities) whose disability significantly affects their intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior. Students with significant cognitive disabilities present complex needs and often require intensive support to access the general education curriculum.

Table 1. Secondary and Postsecondary Education Outcomes for Youth With and Without Disabilities

Percent Graduating from High School

Percent Enrolling in 4-year College

Percent Enrolling in 4-year College who Graduate

Youth with Disabilities




All Youth in the Population




Postsecondary outcomes are especially dire for students with significant cognitive disabilities. For example, they are often the students least likely to find postsecondary employment (Bush & Tasse, 2017), with estimates of unemployment rates as high as 70-80% (Smith et al., 2019). Furthermore, those with significant cognitive disabilities also have limited opportunities to live independently and develop meaningful relationships (Lee & Morningstar, 2019).

These deleterious outcomes mandate immediate action. Nevertheless, even when districts recognize that they must act, it is not necessarily clear what actions they should take or how to systematize those actions for the benefit of all students. Fortunately, ongoing research and policy–in the United States and elsewhere–have shown that an inclusive educational approach improves outcomes for all students (e.g., Agran et al., 2018; Carter & Hughes, 2006). Despite this, districts do not always view inclusive education as a feasible or effective option.

To correct these misconceptions, this study investigated districts that are positive outliers, that is, districts that have implemented inclusive education in a particularly robust and effective way. Specifically, we sought to understand what makes inclusive education successful in such districts. Two questions guided the research:

  1. What are the experiences and viewpoints of district personnel and community members in exemplary districts?
  2. How do district personnel and community members in exemplar districts perceive the community’s influence on inclusive education for students with significant cognitive disabilities?

Extensive research in two exemplar districts revealed that implementing an inclusive model of education for students with significant cognitive disabilities is not only feasible but results in positive outcomes for all students, confirming existing research on the subject. The research further revealed that strong system-level practices and policies made an inclusive approach successful, but that the specific policies and practices differed somewhat across districts as they were grounded in their particular context. The particularity of context points to another key finding: that attentiveness to the community–in particular, enacting an inclusive model with community buy-in–proved essential in each district’s experience.

Literature Review: The Challenge of Inclusive Education

Providing an inclusive education to students with disabilities is a legal mandate of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004), a philosophical ideal held by many educators, and a moral imperative championed by social justice advocates. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO, 2020) defines inclusive education as “a schoolwide culture and practice of valuing each student as a learner across general education classrooms, rather than a particular program or place.” They go on to describe that inclusive education provides equitable access to the general education curriculum as well as the personnel, resources, supports, and interventions necessary for each student’s success.

Not only is inclusion for students with disabilities a legal mandate, but it is also the approach that works best for all students, whether or not they have disabilities (e.g., Agran et al., 2018; Carter & Hughes, 2006; Kalambouka et al., 2007; Ruijs & Peetsma, 2009). Inclusion in the general education curriculum, furthermore, improves outcomes for students with disabilities, regardless of their disability type (see, e.g., Blackorby et al., 2007; Hehir et al., 2012; Marder et al., 2003; Newman et al., 2003; Wagner et al., 2005).

Effective inclusion, however, involves much more than merely placing students with disabilities in general education classrooms. For inclusion to be successful, districts must provide supports, resources, personnel, structures, and so on. Adopting an inclusive approach to education is the work of systems change (see, e.g., Ryndak et al., 2007; Ward et al., 2022). Perhaps this explains why students with significant cognitive disabilities only receive minimal opportunities to access general education environments and the general education curriculum. Compared to all students with disabilities, where 63% spend at least 80% of their day in general education settings, only 3% of students with significant cognitive disabilities are in the general education environment for at least 80% of the day (Vandercook et al., 2018/19). Even when students with significant disabilities are offered opportunities to learn alongside their peers without disabilities, this access is often limited to a few classes a day and students’ participation in those classes remains limited.

Although there is a robust and continually-growing body of research on inclusive practices, districts still struggle to implement inclusive educational models. Students with disabilities cannot benefit from evidence-based practices and strategies they do not receive. And, as Boren and Balas (2000) found, less than 50% of evidence-based interventions make it to scale.

Fostering Inclusive Schooling Across a System

Systems (or organizational) change involves moving all parts of the system. When thinking about structural change, orienting to the “good” can be helpful (Lightfoot, 1983). Fullan and collaborators’ recent work on systems thinking has examined the potential for change through the lens of “goodness,” or from the vantage point that–through the right mechanisms–“goodness” can be achieved within a system (see, e.g., Azorin & Fullan, 2022; Campbell et al., 2021; Fullan, 2020; Fullan & Edwards, 2022). Fullan’s (2020) observations about the changing nature of effective leadership, in response to the societal and learning demands of the 21st century, highlight four actions for leaders: (a) becoming an expert in the context; (b) intentionally involving multiple stakeholders in complex problem solving; (c) establishing internal accountability that realizes individual and collective efficacy; and (d) networking with other school systems and educational intermediaries.

Understanding context and, in particular, involving stakeholders from across the spectrum prove especially important. Including voices from outside the school district structure, families for example (LaRocque et al., 2011) is as important as building teams that incorporate many voices from within the system (see, e.g., Bryk et al, 2015; Fullan, 2010; Mintrom & Vergari, 1996). Together, these might constitute a community-centric approach to systems change. This community-centric approach, along with the use of strong leadership (Roberts et al., 2018) and collaborative teams (Hunt et al., 2003; Sharpe & Hawes, 2003), emerged in both cases under study.

Educational researchers have observed that, while reforms often benefit from early momentum, the system must remain dynamic if they are to take hold (Cuban, 1992; Fullan, 2005; Mehta, 2013; Ravitch, 2013). Institutionalizing reforms requires a system that is open to the intake of new personnel, resistant to changes from retirements and resignations, and able to sustain the work when met with significant internal or external shocks (e.g. budget cuts, top-down mandates, societal crises).

Having implemented an inclusive educational model, districts can embrace a range of inclusive practices that help to achieve institutionalization. Evidence-based practices observed in districts using an inclusive model include: using accommodations and modifications to support student learning; adapting the general education curriculum; providing appropriate supports that are individualized to student needs; utilizing collaborative teaming practices; effective building leadership; and, strong family involvement (e.g., Downing & Peckham-Hardin, 2007; McDaid et al., 2018/19). Moreover, educational experiences that promote high expectations using differentiated and intensive instruction are some of the key factors that influence postsecondary outcomes for individuals with significant cognitive disabilities (Mazzoti et al., 2016).

Two key inclusive practices are the use of paraeducators and peer mentors to provide targeted support. The United States (US) Department of Education (2018) has acknowledged the critical role paraeducators play in the implementation of inclusive schooling, as across the nation many students with disabilities receive support from paraeducators. However, there is a growing concern that the field over-relies on paraeducators to deliver instruction to students with significant cognitive disabilities (e.g., Giangreco & Broer, 2005; Kurth et al., 2016). Schools are hiring increasing numbers of paraeducators, with some data showing paraeducators outnumber licensed educators (US Department of Education, 2018). This is problematic because most paraeducators have not received formal training to teach students with disabilities. Although paraeducators can increase opportunities for students with disabilities in inclusive education settings, potential pitfalls can emerge if their roles and responsibilities are not clear.

An alternative approach to using paraeducators as a way to promote inclusive opportunities is through peer support (Carter et al., 2015). Peer supports include using one or more peers to provide academic and social support to classmates with disabilities (Carter et al., 2009). This allows other adults, such as paraeducators, to fade out their support and take on more of a facilitator role in the process (Carter et al., 2015). Outcomes for students with disabilities who spend time receiving peer support have been positive, including a decrease in time spent with paraeducators, an increase in academic engagement, an increase in access to social interactions, and an increase in initiating or developing peer relationships (Brock & Carter, 2015; Carter et al., 2015, Jimenez et al., 2012).

With the mounting evidence of the benefits of inclusive education and the limited success of districts in implementing an inclusive approach well, we sought to learn from successful districts the systemic actions they take to enhance their effectiveness. This report summarizes the viewpoints and experiences of stakeholders in two districts identified as inclusive exemplars.


This section of the report describes the methods used to address the research questions that guided the study. It begins with a description of the study’s research team. Then it considers the research design, recruitment of participants, instrumentation, data collection, data analysis, methodological assumptions, and limitations.

Research Team

The research team included four core researchers (the authors of the study) and one additional member who contributed extensively to the work but did not engage in data analysis or writing.[1] All team members are advocates for inclusive education, committed to improving equitable opportunities and outcomes for all children, though our backgrounds vary, spanning the fields of inclusive education, special education, rural education, early childhood education, and history. All team members are early career scholars (i.e., all have obtained their terminal degrees in the last 10 years), and their current positions involve research, evaluation, personnel preparation, and professional development efforts to improve the system of education for all students.

Research Design

This study employed a qualitative case study design with interviews as the primary data collection mechanism. Schools reflect the communities they serve; thus, we sought to understand the broader context in which each district operates. We used in-depth interviews to investigate what inclusive education looks like in each district’s schools and how the wider community experienced the district’s initiatives. The research design allowed for a thorough examination of district personnel at both the building and administrative levels. Also, it included interviews with parents of children with significant cognitive disabilities, school board members, and others.

Recruitment of Participants

We began by identifying districts and charter schools across the United States that could serve as positive examples of inclusion–i.e., districts that had implemented an inclusive educational model with a high degree of fidelity systemwide. To do this, we developed a list of scholars and leaders in the field of education who could potentially recommend exemplary districts. This outreach produced contacts for 214 experts, which the team emailed in October and November 2021. After receiving responses from 55 contacts, the team sent follow-up emails to the remaining 159, which generated another three responses. Of the 58 individuals from whom we received a response, 30 did not have a recommendation, eight recommended another individual to contact or indicated that they had forwarded our message to a colleague, and 20 provided recommendations. This process resulted in a list of 35 potential exemplary school districts and charter schools.

After obtaining IRB approval from the University of Cincinnati in February 2022, we contacted all 35 recommended districts and schools via email. The message explained the research’s purpose and invited each to respond if they were interested in participating or learning more. We received three initial responses and sent follow-up emails to the remaining contacts; this produced three additional responses. Of the six interested districts and schools, two were charter schools and four were public districts. A member of the research team conducted informational interviews with contacts at each to explain the research and clarify participants’ responsibilities. Following each conversation, we emailed a nine-item screening questionnaire to the district and school representatives on the call (see Appendix A). Two public districts returned the questionnaire and we selected both districts for inclusion in the research.

To identify individual participants within districts, the research team relied on the district’s administrators who contacted individuals in each role and solicited their participation. The findings section discusses individual participants in greater detail.


We employed a semi-structured interview protocol (see Appendix B). The protocol began with a scripted introduction and overview of the research before soliciting the interviewee’s consent to participate. Interviewers asked a series of eight questions related to (a) place-based factors; (b) the district’s broader mission and vision; (c) the district’s organizational synergy; (d) building- and classroom-level practices; and (e) social and peer engagement. For each of these five domains, the protocol included predetermined follow-up questions that the interviewer could ask if relevant. In addition, interviewers asked spontaneous follow-up questions as needed.

Data Collection

Working with a contact from each district, we provided the team’s availability to conduct interviews and they provided names, roles, contact information, and interview dates/times for interviewees who had agreed to participate. The research team then emailed each interviewee the date and time of the interview, a Zoom link, an informed consent document, and the name of their interviewer. In several cases, the proposed time no longer worked and the researchers worked with the interviewees to reschedule.

Four research team members conducted a total of 49 Zoom interviews between April and June 2022. Most interviews lasted between 30 minutes and one hour (with an overall average of 48 minutes). The research team recorded all interviews using Zoom’s inbuilt recording feature. After each interview, the interviewer saved the audio recording to a shared OneDrive folder; all recordings were sent to REV[2] for transcription. Interview transcripts served as the primary data source for analysis.

Data Analysis

Four researchers participated in the data analysis. Beginning in May 2022, the research team met every other week to discuss the progress of data collection, anything noteworthy that arose during interviews, and to hypothesize potential emergent codes. Following the conclusion of data collection in late June 2022, the team transitioned to the analysis phase of its work (and to weekly meetings). Using a process of constant-comparative coding (rooted in grounded theory), four researchers began coding interviews using one researcher’s set of a priori codes based on the interview questions (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Coders began with a core group of five interviews, ensuring diversity across districts and participant roles, and also developed emergent codes during this initial phase. This enabled the team to compile a list of preliminary codes along with operational definitions for them. Team members then independently coded additional interview excerpts, bringing their coded data to team meetings for discussion and further refinement of the codebook. The final codebook contained both inductive (emergent) and deductive (a priori) codes.

Next, the team split the interviews among researchers with each coding an average of three interviews a week until all interview transcripts had been coded. Each week, for reliability purposes, at least one interview was coded by more than one researcher. In total, the research team multiply-coded eight transcripts (i.e., 16%). During weekly meetings, the team selected one of these interviews for discussion to ensure continued reliability and mutual understanding of the codebook. While discussion of reliability led to the establishment of consensus, and thus the modification of code application for instances without initial agreement, the team computed reliability calculations based on the members’ original code selections. Table 2 summarizes each coder’s reliability. These regular meetings also allowed the team to continually refine the codebook and, as codes evolved, team members re-coded former code applications to ensure they remained accurate. Appendix C reports the final set of codes, their definitions, and examples of meaning units within each.

Table 2: Summary of Interviews Coded and Coding Reliability

Researcher 1

Researcher 2

Researcher 3

Researcher 4

Total N interviews coded





Total N multiply coded





Percent multiply coded





Average reliability





Minimum reliability





Maximum reliability





Having coded all interview transcripts, the team then analyzed the codes to identify broader categories or themes (a process sometimes called axial coding). To do this, team members compiled spreadsheets for each code (with separate sheets for multiply-coded excerpts); these contained all coded excerpts from the dataset organized by district. The research team met twice a week to discuss interpretations of the data and relationships among the categories. This allowed the researchers to develop the following final set of themes, which served as the basis for analysis:

  • Districts assume an identity of inclusivity,
  • The challenges of systems change,
  • Moving the system using community-grounded and systemic approaches,
  • The implementation of inclusive practices,
  • Perennial and systemic tensions related to inclusive education, and
  • Outcomes of inclusive education.

The iterative analysis process allowed the team to clarify, refine, and verify the findings. Investigator and methodological triangulation further ensured validity.

Methodological Assumptions

This study used qualitative interview methods to gather data from a relatively large and diverse sample of participants. The credibility of the data obtained in this study rests on four key methodological assumptions: (1) that district contacts would be able to solicit participation from enough individuals with sufficient knowledge of the district’s efforts related to inclusion, (2) that enough interviews across both districts could be arranged to ensure representative sampling, (3) that interviewees would feel confident enough in the research team’s promise of confidentiality to discuss their experiences openly, and (4) that a qualitative interview study would provide a more accurate understanding of these districts’ approach to inclusion than would be possible with other methods (e.g., surveying).

Credible qualitative research enables individuals external to that research to have confidence in its methodological fidelity and therefore in the veracity of its findings. Dependability, on the other hand, reflects the stability of findings over time, while confirmability describes the extent to which other researchers would obtain the same results if the study were replicated. Finally, transferability describes the extent to which any findings can be translated to other contexts (Korstjens & Moser, 2018). The research team employed several practices to ensure the credibility, dependability, confirmability, and transferability of the findings.

Several types of triangulation helped to establish credibility. Methodological triangulation–that is interviewing participants in diverse roles both within and across districts–strengthened the findings. Investigator triangulation–having four researchers code data and three researchers analyze and interpret the data–further enabled the research team to be sure of its findings. The research team also shared an early draft of the paper’s context and findings sections with each case district, giving them an opportunity to verify the accuracy of the information and interpretations. All feedback provided by the districts was incorporated into the final draft.

The research team established dependability and confirmability by employing a data audit to document each change to the codebook over the two-month data analysis process (see the description of data analysis above). Moreover, 16% of all interviews (or 31% of each coder’s assigned interviews) were coded by more than one researcher. This ensured that the research team reached consensus with acceptable levels of agreement across all data coders (see Table 1). This transparency and validation of data interpretations were also present in our audit trail of the processes we used to analyze and write each theme’s findings.

To ensure the transferability of the findings, the research provided rich descriptions of both school districts and the communities they serve. The team also sought to situate the findings within the particularity of the local context, describing the various aspects of each district that make inclusive education successful in the eyes of the wider community.

Finally, reflexivity is the process of critical reflection that occurs in qualitative research (Korstjens & Moser, 2018). As researchers, we engaged in reflection both individually and as a team. We drew inspiration from each district's commitment to making inclusive education a success. We often reflected on the similarities and differences between the case districts and other districts of which we have knowledge. On multiple occasions, we discussed their rural locales, the rapid rate of growth they have experienced in the last twenty years, and much more. Often, our reflections emphasized each district’s uniqueness and how they reflect the type of districts we hope our children will have the chance to experience.


This research occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic and, further, interviews took place at the end of the school year. These circumstances may have influenced the willingness of individuals to participate in the study.

Secondly, several factors contributed to a sample that is potentially less representative than would be ideal. For example, where participant role is concerned, administrators and special educators constituted 78% of the total sample, potentially overemphasizing their perspectives relative to those of general education teachers or parents. Additional research should focus on the perspectives of these underrepresented participant groups to understand inclusive practices more fully. Similarly, of the 49 total interviews, 36 (or 73%) took place in one of the two districts, which raises questions about the transferability of findings. See the Participants and the Dataset subsection of the Findings for more details.

Finally, as with many interview studies, self-reports of lived experience served as the basis for the dataset. This can, among other possibilities, introduce bias in the dataset. This study did not employ a mixed-methods approach (e.g., using ethnographic observations) to mitigate these potential effects.


This study examined two exemplar districts, one suburban and one rural—though these designations do not tell the full story. This section explores the geographic, demographic, and political contexts at play within each. Unless otherwise noted, demographic information comes from the National Center for Education Statistics.[3] See Appendix D for a table summarizing these demographics.

Vail Unified

Vail Unified, in suburban Tucson, Arizona, has a population of 63,405 and serves 13,642 students, of whom 12.4% are identified as having a disability. The district is 68% White and 23% Hispanic or Latino. The median household income is $86,920 with only 4.1% of families having an income at or below the poverty level.

The district has 23 schools and employs 670 teachers (a 20:1 student-to-teacher ratio) and 353 instructional aides. Additionally, the district budget amounts to $9,826 of revenue per student.

These data do not tell the full story, however: as a district, Vail has experienced exponential growth in the last two decades. US decennial census data indicate growth in population from 2,164 people in 2000 to 10,208 in 2010 and 13,604 in 2020 (US Census Bureau). Of note, these numbers refer to the census-designated place of Vail, which is only one town within the larger geographic catchment for Vail Unified School District that also includes parts of Tucson. Nevertheless, according to the district’s own history, enrollment remained paltry until IBM announced the planned development of a new plant in the area. The arrival of IBM fueled the subsequent population boom and also brought other companies and industries to the area (Vail School District, 2022).

While electoral information does not exist for school districts, data for Pima County (in which Vail sits) indicates that the county votes democratic, with both Clinton and Biden winning by double digits in 2016 and 2020, respectively (Arizona Daily Star). Pima County, however, includes Tuscon, which suggests that Vail itself may vote less overwhelmingly democratic that the county as a whole.

Cecil County

In the US, school districts are either independent or dependent. Dependent districts do not have their own governance and are subservient agencies of a larger (municipal, county, state) government. While most US districts are independent, and many states have some combination of each district type, four states plus the District of Columbia exclusively have dependent districts. Maryland is one of these states, where districts are organized by county.

Cecil County, in the northeast corner of Maryland, has a population of 102,552 and serves 14,718 students, of whom 6.3% are identified as having a disability. The district is 85% White and 6% Black. The median household income is $76,887 with 10.4% of families having an income at or below the poverty level. The district has 29 schools and employs 1,118 teachers (a 13:1 student-to-teacher ratio) and 200 aides. Additionally, the district budget amounts to $15,946 of revenue per student.

Of note, Cecil County straddles the Interstate 95 corridor and includes part of US Route 40 as well. While these towns have higher population densities, the county remains primarily rural. Cecil County voted overwhelmingly Republican in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections (Maryland State Board of Elections). These voting patterns match participants' descriptions of the conservative viewpoints that influence responses to district policy and initiatives.

Implications for the Findings

Public schools operate within local communities and, according to the national average, nearly half of all district funding comes from the local tax effort (Owing & Kaplan, 2020). This is true of both Vail—where $47,153,000 of the district’s $128,666,000 total revenue comes from local efforts—and Cecil County ($101,842,000 of $244,089,000 total) (NCES). Community capital, that is assets (e.g., financial capital, natural capital, built capital), support the local tax base and the services that the district provides. Yet, top-down education policy has prioritized transitioning graduates to the market economy, giving little regard to the role a graduate might play in the very community that helped fund their schooling (Ravitch, 2010; Theobald, 2009; Tyack, 1974). Notably, the administrations in both Vail and Cecil County are aware of this norm and intentionally disrupt it by designing and maintaining an inclusive approach to education across the districts that focuses on both how schooling can contribute to community life and how the wider community adds capacity to the school district.

The Vail and Cecil County contexts directly impact their ability to implement inclusive education and warrant consideration for other districts that seek to shift to an inclusive model as well. As readers will note in the findings, both districts’ shifts were grounded in the community. Consequently, readers seeking to apply lessons learned from these districts should do so with caution and through a place-based, community-oriented lens.


This section of the report presents findings related to two key research questions: First, what are the experiences and viewpoints of school personnel and community members in case districts who utilize an inclusive education model particularly well? And second, how do school personnel and community members in case districts perceive the community’s influence on inclusive education for students with significant cognitive disabilities?

The section begins with a summary of the participants and the dataset. Next, it covers key themes that emerged from the data: (1) that districts assume an identity of inclusivity; (2) the challenges of systems change; (3) moving the system using community-grounded and systemic approaches; (4) the implementation of inclusive practices; (5) perennial and systemic tensions related to inclusive education; and (6) the outcomes of inclusive education.

Participants and the Dataset

Forty-nine interviewees participated in this research, 36 from Vail and 13 from Cecil County (see Table 3). The research team interviewed 17 current or retired central office administrators (e.g., superintendents, directors of special education, school psychologist supervisors) and seven building administrators (e.g., principal, assistant principal). Additionally, the team interviewed 15 teachers (pre-kindergarten through high school), 14 of whom were special educators. The team also conducted interviews with three related service providers (e.g., occupational therapists) as well as with members of the broader community, including six parents and a school board member.

Table 3: Summary of Research Participants by District and Participant Type


Cecil County

Total Number

Total Percent

Current or Retired District Administrators





Building Administrators





General Education Teachers





Current or Former Special Education Teachers





Related Service Providers










Governing board member





Total Participants

36 (73%)

13 (27%)



An Identity of Inclusivity

“This is who we are.” “This is what we do.” Statements like these appeared across interviews, irrespective of the interviewee’s district or role. Both Vail and Cecil County have adopted an identity of inclusion that not only reflects their beliefs but permeates their systems and practices. Their commitment to inclusivity is a core value and they engage in continuous improvement efforts to ensure that their model of inclusive education serves all students well.

Interviewees in Cecil County, for example, described inclusive education as a moral imperative, because inclusion works best for all students. Similarly, an administrator in Vail, explained “That’s kind of how inclusive practices started. That just was the value of the community at the time…‘These are our citizens and our people, and we want to keep them all here at home.’” A member of Vail’s governing board elaborated further:

[Inclusive education] isn’t something that I feel is ever on the table to change. It’s not something that we talk about at a board level or at a leadership level to say, “Do we still want to do this, this year, or not?” If it was, I think there would be an immense amount of pressure from the community to continue that practice. But because it’s just something that we do, it feels like who we are, honestly, that I don’t feel this pressure. It would be as if you asked, “is there pressure for you either to be a nice person or to just love kids?” There’s not that pressure because we just do it. Of course, if we didn’t, if we ever decided not to do this inclusion practice, I think there would be immense pressure from the community...This is just who we are.

Values alone, however, cannot instigate change. Participants in both districts shared the critical role that leaders (i.e., the superintendent and other central office staff) played in promoting inclusion as a value, and that this helped shift the culture in each district. In Cecil County, for instance, one administrator recollected that the district’s former superintendent proclaimed, “Philosophically, you might not agree with this, but morally, [inclusion] is what’s right for kids. And if you can’t get on that bus, philosophically, you might want to board another.” This is to say that district leaders need to value inclusive education to such a degree that they are willing to stand for it, to sacrifice to ensure its success (e.g., in terms of personnel, funds).

While inclusive schooling requires strong leadership, many interviewees also observed that district personnel need to have a personal commitment to inclusion for it to be a success. Indeed, inclusive schooling requires every district member to take ownership of all students and implement inclusive practices. As an administrator in Vail stated:

When we talk about our students, if that student is on your campus, they’re one of your students regardless of what role you play on that campus. You might be the custodian and you still have a valued role in all of our students. The person in the front office, you’re the one who’s going to greet them when they come in. That whole philosophy and meeting students’ needs…Again, acknowledging that it’s not always easy and sometimes it’s messy, but how do we work through it so that we can help the student be successful because what we truly believe is that the inclusive practices are what’s going to benefit all of our students the most [emphasis added].

The shared value of inclusion solidified each district personnel’s commitment to engage in such challenging work. With inclusive practices ingrained in each district’s culture, there is an expectation that all students with disabilities will be included in the general education classroom. Inclusive schooling is a non-negotiable for these districts.

The Challenges of Systems Change

Although the specific circumstances that instigated the shift toward greater inclusion differed across districts, several common threads emerged. Chief amongst these was the reality that the move towards inclusive education is one of systems change, not merely policy change. And, as with all attempts at systems change, both districts experienced significant opposition to their initial efforts. As one administrator from Vail reflected:

It’s hard for people to understand and appreciate how difficult the battle was when we started it as a community…We ran into significant resistance because it was a break with how things have been done in the past…Not only were students with significant disabilities not in the local classroom, they weren’t even in the local school. We sent students with significant disabilities off to other larger local school districts or to special providers. So, when we moved them, not only back into our school, but into regular classrooms, there was a significant response on the part of classroom teachers saying, “Hey, this is not what I signed up for”…And there was also a pretty significant negative response on the part of some parents who believed that the presence of these kids was detracting or chewing up time—the teacher’s time—to the detriment of their own children. And also, there was a belief that the presence of these students was decreasing the academic opportunities in classrooms because it was dragging down the classroom and taking an emphasis away from academic achievement and putting it on some kind of social cause rather than moving kids forward academically. So, the resistance was very significant.

Administrators in Cecil County reflected on similar opposition. They described how the shift involved ongoing discussions with teachers to explain their new role and why the change benefited students. As one remembered:

There was a lot of pushback in the very beginning. The center schools had a very strong culture, and the teachers that taught there were very bonded. It was a mindset…[But] once you take away the barriers, then it’s more a matter of why are we hesitating to do this? And typically, it comes down to fear. It’s either fear from the general educators because they don’t feel equipped or they feel like maybe they won’t know what to do. Fear from the special educator because they think that the way that they’ve always navigated educating students is correct. Frankly, special educators don’t necessarily want to share a classroom with a general education teacher, and sometimes vice versa.

As another administrator from Cecil County noted:

[For] special educators, it took us a little longer to get them to come around because, honestly…they felt like their…ownership was being diminished by the fact that we were saying the children needed to learn in the gen. education setting. And it really took a lot of strategic conversations about what is the role of the special educator in this model.

Vail experienced similar issues with personnel anxious to continue the status quo. As an administrator in the district put it, “of course there [were] some families and teachers who didn’t quite understand [the] mindset [of fading one-on-one support], and still don’t. And so, they resisted the idea enthusiastically.” Whether from the belief that more individual support is always preferable or, more cynically, to preserve their positions, individuals resisted the initial push toward inclusion. As this same Vail administrator reflected:

As far as the barriers and resistance went…it was a mindset and a shift, and there were clinical, private practices who resisted that. Like, “How dare they? This student needs 700 hours of speech pathology a week, and you want to just [remove that] like this?”

Some parents also resisted the move towards inclusion, with interviewees describing a range of perspectives from favorable to skeptical. For instance, one parent ruminated on their own initial resistance to inclusive education: “It wasn’t as consistent as what I would’ve liked. … You just didn’t see that some of the teachers were very good in incorporating the child into the least restrictive environment.”

At first, some parents of students with disabilities did not agree to their child being taught in the general education setting. When Cecil County moved students back into their home schools, for example, this meant that some students with disabilities still had to be accommodated in separate classrooms. A Cecil County administrator described how this did not live up to parents’ expectations, and eventually, most parents allowed their children to be taught in general education classrooms:

As they got placed within those [separate classrooms], [parents] were finding that wasn’t the solution to the questions that they wanted answered, which were primarily, “How do I get my child everything that they need, or how do I get my child more involved? How do I get my child language?” Especially because most of our children within those settings were also non-verbal or had significant behaviors.

These and other initial challenges (e.g., the ability of teachers to truly accommodate the continuum of learners with significant cognitive disabilities) resulted in both districts shifting to inclusive education slowly and systematically. In fact, interviewees described a multiple-year timeline for how they went from deciding to fully include students with significant cognitive disabilities to it being common practice in their district. As another administrator from Cecil County recalled:

It took years. What I feel is just the status quo and how things operate right now was totally not there…it was not just meetings with teachers, it was meetings with parents. And it wasn’t just parents of students with disabilities, it was getting all parents in and explaining this is what’s happening, this is why it’s happening, these are the benefits for your child, these are the benefits for all children. There’s a lot of the why behind it. Instead of we’re just going to do this, but the why behind it. And then, how do we prepare kids and staff and parents for this transition to happen?

This points to a key strategy embraced by both districts in their moves toward inclusion: a gradual approach. Here is how a third administrator from Cecil County summarized it:

I felt there was this whole process where we worked [segregated students] out in the general ed. classroom there. And then, the following year, we started moving them, grade level by grade level…back to their home school. So, it was a really well-defined process, lots of meetings, lots of communication. It wasn’t, “today we’re going to do it and tomorrow it’s done.” It was about a two- to three-year process on the east side of the county and then they [did] the same thing on the west side of the county with Perryville. So, it gave everybody time.

Full implementation of an inclusive approach took time for both districts. Once they began the process, however, momentum grew and informed the creation of values-driven systems.

Moving the System

While a gradual approach to systems change proved effective, both districts also embraced several proactive strategies to ensure their success. First, both enacted inclusive models with a community-centric approach. This is to say that both Vail and Cecil County understand that schools are intrinsic parts of a wider community and they, therefore, recognized the importance of securing buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders. Second, both districts built systems to capture input from diverse stakeholders, especially through the use of a distributed leadership model. Together, these approaches helped ensure that the move to inclusion remained on track.

Grounding in Community

The scale of change required that both districts marshal input from a broad range of stakeholders, helping to ensure buy-in. Grounding the shift to inclusion within the wider community proved to be a key ingredient in both districts’ success. As one administrator from Vail summarized:

When I came, I tried to identify the strengths of the community, and I really latched onto this thing…that tied everything together and gave the place an identity. So, we came up with the motto, “where education is a community effort.” And we really promoted that, not just as some words on the wall, but an identity that we lived up to. So, the relevance of that in terms of inclusive practices is when we shifted to saying, “Hey, these students with significant disabilities really belong to us, they belong to our community, and we should be dealing with them here in our own local school and our own local classrooms.” That was a really good foundation to build on.

Likewise, Cecil County’s attentiveness to the entire community helped to keep the effort on track:

It was a big paradigm shift and it took a lot of time for teachers, for families to get behind the idea and realize that their children’s needs could be met in the general setting or in their homeschool setting. I think even businesses—with when you looked at community partners and some of the work that we did with students—having them go out to get some job training…Again, it was this paradigm shift of we’re used to having children with disabilities in a certain setting and working with a certain school staff and having them out in other buildings. It was challenging, but I think, as it evolved, it’s become the norm…I believe in our community [inclusion] has now become just a way of life, but it took years to get to that point where it became accepted in the school system and in their surrounding community.

Interviewees from both districts attested to the importance of education being a community endeavor. They described how education extends beyond the school’s walls into the community and how the community supports schooling. Official language from each district further supports this. Cecil County’s mission statement, for example, concludes, “We will ensure all learners acquire the knowledge, skills, and qualities to be responsible, caring, and ethical citizens.” Vail’s motto is simply “Where education is a community effort.” Indeed, as many participants attested, these are not mere words, but values that inform the districts’ work and dictate their engagement with students, the students’ families, and the rest of the community.

Schooling as an Extension of Community. Leadership teams in both districts discussed their efforts to not only meet academic needs, but also to create space for community gatherings, to design programming that leads students toward independent adult lives, and to provide other resources. This community rootedness helps explain each district’s commitment to inclusive education. As a teacher from Vail described:

I think that the community and the school district are...they’re very interconnected. They’re very much woven together. And the school district rose out of the community being very small. Initially, it was very rural, so you had that small town feel where just everybody kind of watches out for each other...As the district expanded and grew and became more urban and continued to grow and become a hub, there was [still] an inclusive, tightly wound, community-oriented feel. So, I think that had a lot to do with... why [inclusive education] has been so effective, because…it started small and it grew. And they kept the ties to the community as they grew.

Furthermore, interviewees described a mutually constitutive relationship between the districts’ inclusive practices and community-level social capital. In particular, leaders in each district relied significantly on entrepreneurial social infrastructure[4]. As a related services provider in Cecil County described:

In terms of the disability community, there’s a lot of support that we have. Many of our after-school activities or our public involvement activities involve a lot of those nonprofit groups’ support for the families. A lot of it is education. It’s advocacy of what inclusion looks like, that it’s not an all or nothing thing, [and] that it is a spectrum in terms of what’s individualized to the student’s needs.

Both districts also described mechanisms for sustaining their commitment to inclusive schooling, for example by creating accessible pathways between the school and the community. Interviewees in both districts described providing vocational training and resources that connect students with significant cognitive disabilities to community life. They also explained how the process of tapping into community assets unfolded over time and continues to evolve. Stakeholders in both districts view schooling as an extension of community life and embrace students with significant cognitive disabilities as a part of—not apart from—schooling and thus community life. For example, an administrator in Vail described vocational opportunities:

So, we have a whole area in Vail where [students with disabilities] have the opportunity to work in the food pantry; they have the opportunity to work in a thrift store. We have some partnerships with some businesses that have our students come in and really provide those workplace skills so that when they leave us, they’re transitioning into something meaningful and productive for them.

Importantly, intermediary organizations that straddle the boundaries of community life and formal schooling facilitate this bonding of social capital. These organizations include, for example, the Judy Center (Cecil County) and Sonora Behavioral Health (Vail), which can assist families with academic transitions, behavioral health, and key therapies as well as work with the districts to enhance their programming to better serve students with these needs.

Over time, the growth of inclusive practices also surfaced the need to bridge across networks, helping to make the districts’ work visible at the state level. In Vail, for example, several educators undertook doctoral work at the University of Arizona, which they connected to district-wide professional development and state-level advocacy. Both districts now recognize their roles in helping families gain access to, on the one hand, statewide resources that meet the immediate needs of students with significant cognitive disabilities and, on the other, opportunities that facilitate the transition from school to postsecondary life.

Home and School Partnerships. Effectively including students with disabilities in general education settings requires family involvement. Personnel from Vail and Cecil County view parents as partners; educators and family members regularly collaborate to promote learning and find solutions when a particular approach does not work for a student. Parents and district personnel often described meetings, classroom-level interactions, and extracurricular events that indicated a transformational (rather than transactional) relationship between school, families, and communities. For instance, Vail implemented site councils that provide parents with a way to engage meaningfully in decision-making. As one parent noted:

With my working so closely with the site councils at the various schools, which [act as] an advisor to the principal…you were able to kind of give your feedback and keep on top of the issues and any things that were overreaching or needed some attention.

Recognizing that not all families can serve on site councils and the like prompted each district to find other ways of soliciting input. For instance, both districts described inviting parents into the inclusive setting and looking to them for feedback on individual student needs and how to foster outcomes that have a community-level impact. Parents in Vail and Cecil County are integral team members whose expertise about their own children is valued and respected. Both Vail and Cecil County intentionally include parents in discussions and ensure they have a voice in decisions impacting their children. One Cecil County administrator elaborated:

When we talk about building relationships, it is this partnership with the home and school that we are developing so that the family feels a part of their child’s educational growth and development. That they feel heard [and] valued, and that their input and feedback is requested. That’s how we build relationships and sustain those relationships, even to the point when they don’t agree. It’s like, “Well, we’ve been in communication. I may not agree with a decision, but at least I had a chance to provide my view, [and] my feedback as well”…So, it’s not a negative, or a reprimand, or this reactive call; it is proactive, building connections, partnerships, and relationships with families on that front end to sustain them throughout the year as we work for the benefit of the child. And then families begin to feel as though they are part of that shared decision-making with the school. And it’s not that something’s being done to them, but something is being done with them, so that’s a part of what we do here. And that’s a part of our restorative practices. We’re working with you, we’re not doing something to you. We’re doing something together in a collaborative effort to make sure that your child is successful.

In our interviews with parents, they described how open communication was key in building trust and fostering positive, partnering relationships that bring continuity between school and home. This communication came both in the form of formal interactions, and also informal, as a Cecil County administrator noted, “And it really built a bridge that just connected us. So, it was beyond a daily communication log. It was beyond sitting at an IEP table. It was a, ‘Hey, I'm seeing this.’" A teacher in Vail also described how they leveraged technology to keep parents informed on their child’s services and share resources with them:

We created and set up that each student had a blog. The student either themselves noted what they were doing in class or the peer or the paraprofessional or the teacher, or whoever was providing the targeted support in that class did a daily update in there. And I could get on there and so could the parents and so could the students, and do a reflection of what was the student doing throughout the school day. It was a great way to share modifications. It was a great way to celebrate successes, get photos up there. It was a great way to provide home-school communication and help everybody be on the same page…Then as we moved into...a learning platform now that the students operate off of. So that even provided and opened up more opportunities for communication and digital resource sharing, and made the students more tech savvy.

Structures that Promote Systems Change

For Vail and Cecil County, community functions as both a value undergirding the push for inclusion as well as a strategy for bringing it about. But beyond tailoring their approaches to community context, both districts promoted change within that context. This, in turn, required that each district build systems to manage (and facilitate the input of) the many stakeholders from across the community.

The districts’ personnel–from central office and building administrators through instructional and support staff–are all part of an organizational hierarchy that promotes distributed leadership and feedback loops that help maintain the system. Leaders recognize the human capital that permeates all levels of the hierarchy, and each district has the infrastructure to implement an inclusive model. Although strategies for implementing systems-change varied across districts, both Vail and Cecil County relied on a well-defined administrative hierarchy and shared leadership model.

Administrative Hierarchy. Both Vail and Cecil County have administrative leadership teams that include personnel from across the district. Central office administrators primarily oversee districtwide governance and implementation. District administrators also follow through on the commitment to inclusive education by creating value statements for students and staff that are used districtwide. Further, district administrators also develop common structures that increase the feasibility of meeting students’ needs in general education settings and that sustain inclusive education going forward (e.g., by fostering transparency with the community and engaging all personnel through continued professional learning). In describing how a new policy will unfold in the district, an administrator from Vail provided insight into their shared leadership structure.

State policy drives what we do in the decisions that we make. What we do when new policies come to light is we talk about it...Our district office personnel, including our superintendent and his team, kind of dissect what those things look like and then we talk about it as a leadership team. We talk about it as a whole group of leadership, and then we talk about it as different groups. So elementary, middle school, and high school. Then from there, we disseminate the information to our staff. Our leadership team is very good about coming into schools to talk about different policies that are occurring, allowing for open-door policy with either the building administrator or the district administration team to allow for questions to happen and for feedback to be given.

Both districts employ administrative, instructional, and support personnel in roles specific to learners with disabilities (e.g., special education director, school psychologist supervisor, districtwide behavior consultant) as well as personnel in specific service areas (e.g., speech and language). Building-level administrators–especially those with inclusive educational expertise–provide leadership and consistency within and across buildings. All district buildings have members of the administrative leadership team on site and reporting structures and feedback loops in place to facilitate distributed leadership.

Leaders in both districts invite stakeholders from across the organizational hierarchy to partake in the problem-solving process–what Fullan (2020) calls “joint determination.” Each district’s vision informs a blueprint for erecting infrastructure in support of inclusive practices. This infrastructure spans the districts’ large physical footprint—several hundred square miles and over 20 buildings in the case of both Vail and Cecil County. Furthermore, accessibility includes access to facilities district-wide, the curriculum, and social spaces and activities (e.g., clubs and sports). Similarly, the districts create consistency through the adoption of curricula and other academic materials as well as social, emotional, and behavioral resources. A central office administrator in Vail described how the district’s behavior intervention team provides support when needed:

We have our Behavior Intervention Team that helps and goes out to sites. Anybody can make a referral to that team. It doesn't have to be a special education provider. It could be a gen ed teacher or principal or assistant principal, or counselor. It doesn't have to be somebody who's on an IEP, but just, "Okay. We're really struggling with this student. We need somebody else with a fresh set of eyes to come in and take a look, and see if there's something different we can try to make this work."

Interviewees shared the importance of building teams (typically led by a principal) that painstakingly create each student’s schedule based on individualized needs, the overall grade-level make-up, and the feasibility of educators collaborating with one another in a sufficient quantity and quality of time to meet each other’s needs. Teams design schedules to prevent behavioral breakdowns (e.g., staggering difficult classes with easier ones; alternating sensory-intensive classes with less intensive ones) and to provide a “push-in” (rather than “pull-out”) service-delivery model. Although systematic scheduling presents challenges (e.g., additional planning time), it pays dividends. One Cecil County central office administrator explained:

We hand scheduled students every year…We actually had cards that I brought with me from the elementary school that we would use, where we put all kinds of student data on this card. It was their standardized data, whether or not they had an IEP, whether or not they had a 504 [plan]. If it was an IEP, whether it was reading goals, math goals, what their services were, any behavioral concerns. Anything we needed to know about these kids. Then we used these cards to develop our block schedule. We always scheduled our students with IEPs first. We did that because we tried to create caseloads where we had as few teachers working together as possible so that we had the collaboration and the communication to meet students’ needs.

For example, in seventh grade, if I had four language arts teachers, four math teachers, four science teachers, and four social studies teachers, I also had four special educators. Two of them were focused on math and two of them were focused on language arts. I paired them up with a language arts and a math teacher so they taught together three blocks a day and they planned together one block a day. I took those special educators and I paired them up so that a reading and a math special educator worked together so they supported a caseload…They were not following the same kids, but they were working in a group. So, they were communicating with each other because our team felt like the continuity of services for kids made sense. It was more collaboration time for adults, and more communication to support kids.

Distributed leadership practices–enacted through various systems and structures–cultivate inclusion for the building and the district. Other personnel also spoke about the issues of transition planning. A teacher provided an example of how their school enacted a “freshman academy” to support the transition to high school through the use of cohorts. A related services provider described using practices like a “communication passport,” which fosters educators’ insight into student needs by providing a historical repository for contributions from various stakeholders (including students themselves) and which accompanies that student across grade levels to provide continued documentation.

Inclusive Instructional Leadership. Within the context of distributed leadership, administrators in both districts adopt a view of inclusive instructional leadership. This means building and district administration act in a way that promotes high levels of learning systemwide - including all subgroups of students (Howley & Telfer, 2020). Principals shared how they attend instructional team meetings to learn with and from the personnel in their buildings and to create an environment where their staff can improve their implementation of inclusive practices to increase learning for all students. This allows the disparate parts of the system (or those in unique roles) to work towards a common goal: working together to support all students. Reflections from occupational therapists in each district underline this finding. For example, an OT from Cecil County noted:

I try to push into the classroom for services as much as possible…My sessions run between 15 minutes to 30 minutes, depending on the child’s needs. It’s a lot of bouncing back and forth between rooms, a lot of collaboration, especially between related service providers–speech-language pathologists, PTs, our visual teacher or visual braillist–I’ve been collaborating with [them] a lot.

Likewise, in Vail, an OT related that:

As a related service provider, I knew that I was in something different when I was working with an inclusion specialist who was assigned as somebody to help promote the inclusive fidelity of a school. And I thought, “I’m not going to be doing related services the way I used to, this is going to have a whole different look”…I then had the privilege of growing up to be the related service provider supervisor, and we continued to evolve…helping OTs and PTs and SLPs and psychs understand the power of teaching staff about supporting the student. So, that was a real mindshift, because you know that related service providers, often we want to be the person that has direct service with that student.

Two core practices of inclusive instructional leadership are administrators’ intentionality in building districtwide capacity through support and accountability and fostering an open and collaborative culture. The section that follows describes supports to advance these practices.

Additional Structures. Opportunities for professional development as well as orientations provided to new hires offer yet more evidence of the districtwide support that Vail and Cecil County provide, manifesting what Fullan (2020) describes as a “culture of accountability.” Crucially, questions and discussions regarding inclusive norms for students with significant cognitive disabilities are a part of all new hire interviews and orientations. This is not only for teachers and administrators, but for new personnel in any role–“with a new hire orientation, anybody that works for the district, bus driver or lunch monitor, special needs parapro, classroom parapro”–as one Vail administrator explained.

Teachers in both districts discussed ongoing professional development and coaching that continue year-to-year. Administrators also described the importance of sustained professional learning for helping all personnel to understand the importance of (and how to implement) inclusive education. As one central office administrator from Cecil County described:

We have become really efficient at sustained professional learning around inclusive practices. We’re consistently addressing this topic of what specialized instruction can look like and how we can best provide it. That’s something that’s always on our minds, and I feel like the district–through things like district-wide and school-based professional development–has teams really helping our folks be proficient doing that work.

Commitment to inclusivity requires that leaders create room for flexibility across the system while still maintaining continuity with regard to access. Both districts view accessibility not just through the lens of physical access (to and within buildings), but also in terms of access to the curriculum and programming. And both districts attend to the social, emotional, and behavioral resources that further advance accessibility.

Principals from both districts communicated the importance of their efforts in fostering an inclusive culture. They shared the importance of attending teachers’ team meetings to stay informed about their school’s teaching and learning, particularly as it relates to students with disabilities. Principals also described how they use walkthroughs to stay informed and how they regularly check in with the educators in their building to ensure all the structures and supports are in place for them to be successful. They also described their involvement in schoolwide data collection and in analyzing outcomes for different subgroups of students within their building. A Cecil County principal described the support they provide teams through data-based discussions:

We prepare some data sets for our staff that include measures of academic progress and measures of student behavior that's tagged to them…So we try to disaggregate that as best we can so that we're giving different views on the data and then we ask reflective questions. So we ask them to consider: What are some takeaways from this data that you see? What are some practices that are supporting the outcomes you're getting? And then, what other practices do we need?

A Vail central office administrator also shared how district teams attend to each school’s data and each grade’s data to explore patterns that warrant attention:

And when we start to see the referrals increasing significantly, especially at a certain site or in a certain grade level, we start to look at what could be going on there and looking at the systems in place, looking at that team…And are we seeing a pattern that should indicate that we need to dig a little deeper and go in and work with a specific site or a specific grade level, or maybe it's the district as a whole.

Principals spoke about the importance of the special educator’s role in consulting with general educators regarding methods to meet the needs of children with disabilities to improve teaching and learning. They would sometimes need to encourage special educators to be more outspoken in their communication about different methods a teacher could try. These practices characterize the actions of inclusive instructional leaders and showcase a climate where all school personnel are willing contributors to the mission of inclusive education.

COVID-19: A Check and Balance to the System

Significant disrupters like the COVID-19 pandemic can indicate the extent to which a system functions successfully. Leaders in both districts recognized this. As one administrator described the transition back to face-to-face schooling:

I think because everything changed and we went completely online and then coming back, it just allowed us to think about what things really do work and what things do we need to kind of [rework]...I think we tried to jump back right into where we left off, and that wasn’t possible for anybody. So I think it did help us to realize, “Okay, this is a perfect opportunity to make some shifts that maybe we needed to make already.”

Another administrator explained that the pandemic also tested the overall commitment to inclusive practices:

In recent times, the pivotal time was COVID and having to figure out how to best serve all of our kids, including students with special needs. So we had to shift in such a way that we’ve never had to shift before. How do we serve kids that have IEPs? How do we serve kids that have 504s? How do we serve all of our kids while trying to maintain all of the standards that were set by the health department and the CDC? I feel like even though our hands were tied in many aspects, we did a good job in being able to provide for the needs of our kids, and we’re still doing that based off of all the aftermath that our kids are experiencing.

While these quotes highlight the districts’ successes in light of COVID’s massive disruption, participants also reflected on ways in which the pandemic stressed the system:

  1. Equity of access to academic resources, facilities, and social supports: During the height of the pandemic, students with the most significant cognitive disabilities were often the most siloed in the virtual learning environment because remote learning created further barriers to their participation. However, during the transition back to in-person learning this was sometimes reversed. Priority was given to students with significant cognitive disabilities, while bringing back other students was, at times, postponed.
  2. Contributions from community-level social capital: In general, both districts experienced diminished community support at the height of the pandemic, and also in the transition back to in-person schooling. The tension they attributed this to was the tug between the greater good (e.g., focused on equity of access and resource distribution) versus an elevated push for individual gain.
  3. Rethinking programming and resources: Both districts identified programming issues and resource gaps that became apparent throughout the pandemic. These were turned into action steps.
  4. Staffing and facility capacity: The pandemic revealed where each system was overextended in regard to gaps in staffing and space constraints.

The Implementation of Inclusive Practices

Effective use of inclusive practices is multifaceted. Identifying which practices to use based on a student’s presenting needs and how to use them (e.g., frequency, intensity) requires ongoing collaborative teaming. Peers also play a crucial role in modeling and supporting students to be successful and independent. This section unpacks these aspects of inclusive education along with the specific environmental and instructional practices identified by interviewees.

Collaborative Teaming

In Vail and Cecil County, collaboration between personnel proved key to their implementation of inclusive practices. General educators, special educators, related service providers, and paraeducators work in partnership as interdependent members of instructional teams. Interviewees described standing meetings that team members use to improve their teaching and student learning. Other meetings foster dialogue about specific students and their needs, helping to create or revise a student’s plan. Team meetings also facilitate discussion of upcoming academic content and enable educators to plan for the materials and resources needed for each student to access and master the content.

Participants in Vail and Cecil County described how general educators often co-teach with special educators and paraeducators. Interviewees provided various examples of co-teaching models like parallel direct instruction, one-teach and one-support, one-teach and one follow-up support, and team teaching. Importantly, though, co-teaching requires shared ownership from both (all) educators. Here a building coordinator in Cecil Council reflected on this aspect of their co-teaching experiences:

You couldn’t tell who was the special ed. teacher and who was the gen. ed. teacher, because we all worked. He and I would split up and work with several groups. I think that’s also a key to not just always have [instruction for students with disabilities] relying on the special ed. teacher in the room, but you have the gen. ed. teacher as well…We always co-taught lessons. It was a constant feeding off of one another and modeling lessons and expectations. It came from both of us, not just the special ed. teacher. So, I think that’s really important in inclusive practices, that ownership piece of the gen. ed. teacher, as well as special ed.

Instructional team members work across areas and collaborate so that all members contribute and demonstrate respect for one another’s expertise. As an occupational therapist in Vail explained, such collaboration is the opposite of a “You do this, and I’ll do that” mentality. Instead, teams engage mutually to create shared (rather than standalone) goals for students, which foster inclusive programming that meets each student’s individualized needs.

These qualities align with Cohen & Bailey’s (1997) characterization of teams being groups of individuals who are interdependent social entities who share the responsibility for achieved outcomes. Teachers commented that they regularly seek out other team members’ points of view and reflect on their practice to promote each student’s learning. Such collaboration occurs between veteran and novice personnel alike and across both instructional and support staff. This not only improves educators’ knowledge and skills, it also builds trust among team members and provides opportunities to reinforce the districts’ inclusive values. A Cecil County school psychologist described the benefits of collaborative teaming:

When we met as a team to come up with how to reassess [a student who had previously been in the most restrictive environment], we really tried to hit home to the team members that are new here what being a fully inclusive county means and what it means to really include him and not just write him off because we were told he’s not verbal…I think having our team meetings–that aren’t necessarily IEP meetings, they’re just group team meetings where all the staff that works with that student gets together and really talks about what can he do, what have I seen–it made newer staff feel like they were supported…to work with someone with significant disabilities…It’s such a success story…because they are new [and] feel empowered that we figured this kid out, it’s not a scary thing.

Vail and Cecil County foster shared ownership. The shared belief about doing what is right for all students motivates personnel to live up to their individual and collective responsibilities for the success of each student. Both individual and collective efficacy ensure the system remains successful for each district. Interviewees in both Vail and Cecil County emphasized that, for inclusion to work, educators must come together and support one another to meet students’ learning needs. As a special education teacher from Vail described:

I think one of the biggest things is making sure that our kids have all of the academic, behavioral, and social supports they need to be successful in the general education classroom. I think that is one of the biggest things I try to ensure and help implement. Not just myself at my site. I know that is across the district and other inclusion specialists have that same kind of mentality as well.

Peer Support and Mentoring

In Vail and Cecil County, students with significant cognitive disabilities are educated alongside their peers from the time they enter preschool until they graduate from high school. Both districts train students with and without disabilities to mentor and support their peers. In fact, peer mentors are among the most utilized resources in each district. Peer mentors provide academic and non-academic support. In the early years of schooling, peers often serve as models (e.g., using positive skills) and, as students get older, peers transition to the role of mentor (i.e., actively providing support). For example, a Vail administrator described the systemic nature of their peer mentoring program:

I think all of our high schools have a really dialed in peer mentor program...They take it as a class so they get credit for it and they also get to learn more about students with disabilities. And then they provide peer support for them, whether it's going into a gen ed class and they provide that targeted support instead of some of our paraprofessionals. Or it's just they're hanging out with them at lunch or they're doing the fun activities that they get to do with them. But that's a pretty robust program.

Interviewees described leveraging one student’s strengths to support another student’s success in the general education setting. For example, an educator might teach assertive or rule-follower students to use words or gestures to prompt another student to focus, stay on task, or use a quiet voice. As students get older and enter middle and high school, peers may work with students with disabilities to help them understand social cues. Some interviewees in Vail (e.g., parents and teachers) even described how peers could sometimes provide more assistance than a teacher or paraeducator because students are motivated to work with their peers and engage in prosocial behaviors. As a parent from Vail described:

[My daughter] is not always so crazy about what she's required to do in vocational training, and somehow [her peer mentor] gets her to do what needs to be done, so that's always really nice…Wednesdays they're going to the district office, [my daughter] might not be so keen on wanting to shred papers or deliver mail, and somehow [her peer mentor] gets her to do it and gets her to do it with joy, so it's really nice.

Consequently, peer mentorship produces a tremendous impact. Peers form authentic relationships with their mentees. Peers learn important skills from working with others. Students with disabilities develop new academic or social skills. The support provided by peers has the added benefit of being from a more natural source, that is, it may be typical of what a student might receive outside of school.

In both Vail and Cecil County, educators teach peer mentors about different disabilities and their presenting needs while providing training (similar to that provided to paraeducators) on how best to support the student with whom they are partnered. While both districts implemented a competitive process to identify who can serve as a peer mentor, the individuals selected vary across many parameters. One teacher from Vail, for example, described that some of their best peer mentors were children who often received reprimands. The peer mentoring relationship is symbiotic: it benefits the child with significant needs through the provision of targeted support and it benefits the mentor by giving them the responsibility that forces focus and attention. A parent of a child with disabilities described this mutual benefit when she discussed the growth her child made when he served as a peer mentor to another child with a significant disability:

I think for us personally, one of the pivotal moments was when [my son] was in high school…and one of the teachers…came to us and said, "We've always had individuals with disabilities supported by peer mentors, but we would like to start also seeing individuals with disabilities as a peer mentor." And so they kind of piloted it with [my son] and I think one other kiddo and had them peer mentor other individuals that had significant disabilities. And that was really pivotal because now not only are we doing inclusive practices, but now we're putting individuals with disabilities in places of leadership…It's another level of thinking and empowering.

The districts’ willingness to consider all students as potential peer mentors is another example of the value that Vail and Cecil County place on inclusivity with all individuals being valued members of the school community.

Classroom Practices

The educational environment impacts the quality of learning opportunities and outcomes in school (Sanders et al., 2018). An inclusive physical space provides all students with the equipment and materials they need to learn as well as ensures their safety. Educators in Vail and Cecil County create this positive learning environment in multiple ways, for example by making accommodations to the setting and to materials right in the classroom. This helps students access the rigorous grade-level curriculum in a manner that facilitates their mastery of the content. This is also true with respect to social-emotional learning. Students who need to move (e.g., pace, jump, fidget) can do so right in the classroom, and students with limited language are encouraged to vocalize or use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems to communicate with adults and peers. From the beginning of schooling in these districts, students see and hear these differences in engagement and communication, and they learn how to interact in relevant ways with their peers. Accepting and normalizing the differences with which students engage in the environment and participate in the daily activities of school fosters a psychologically safe environment for all students. This safety gives students the opportunity to contribute to the learning environment and attests to the fact that, in Vail and Cecil County, all students are valued members of the school community.

In both districts, educators bring intentionality to their interactions with students with significant cognitive disabilities in order to create meaningful ways for them to participate. For example, they create consistent routines in the classroom, house all adapted materials in the general education environment, and create natural opportunities for students to practice skills. Creating an environment that allows all students to be active members of the school community is far from easy. It requires in-depth knowledge of each student along with significant prep time to develop all the materials necessary for them to participate. A teacher from Cecil County reflected on the importance of this preparation:

One of the biggest things with inclusion is being fully prepared on the day so that your student can participate in all aspects of it, even at lunch, having conversation starters, and things like that. It’s a lot of before-prep for the day.

Whereas educators from both districts described the importance of preparation for students’ success, interviewees also noted that services outside of the general education setting were sometimes needed to help students focus or decompress. Educators described the importance of having separate spaces that students can access to take a break, relax from the demands of the classroom (e.g., sensory, task-oriented), and reset in order to get back to the general education environment. All personnel understand that these spaces are the last resort and that, prior to relying on them, other classroom accommodations or peer and/or adult support need to be tried. Accommodations within the inclusive setting always precede pull-out services, and such spaces are used sparingly and only with the purpose of returning students back to the inclusive environment as quickly as possible. Although these services are only used as needed, there is potentially a universal benefit to all students, with and without disabilities, to have an inclusive setting that allows for breaks from the classroom.

Strategies to Promote Access to the General Education Curriculum. In Vail and Cecil County, the presumed competence that instructional teams afford all students sets the expectation for all learners to not only receive their education in inclusive settings but to have access and engagement in the general education curriculum. Instruction for learners with significant cognitive disabilities is individualized based on each student’s needs, and these needs guide the accommodations, modifications, and scaffolds used to promote student learning. For example, accommodations may be used to adapt a student’s work to make it more interesting. A parent from Vail described how her daughter’s teachers would create math word problems that include her favorite Disney characters, motivating her to complete her work. A teacher from Vail also described making accommodations for a student who experienced heightened anxiety when his work was not completed perfectly. His anxiety had become a barrier to completing a daily journal, so she gave him a whiteboard to use so that he could erase when needed and create a journal response that satisfied him. Once finished, they took a picture of the writing and put it into his journal. Principles of universal design for learning (UDL) help students access grade-level curriculum.

Others also described using UDL accommodations and modifications to support students during core instruction in math. A special educator in Vail, for instance, noted:

Let's say the [general education] teacher’s starting the instruction on [order of operations]. We have the notes from the teacher and we have them in several different formats. One is just like everyone else where they have to fill in a lot of the work. Some of it is where we fill in some of it for them, and they have to just fill in some of the numbers or some of the vocabulary words. And then some of them it’s just highlighting what the teacher’s talking about. So, they’re still engaged, they’re still having to pay attention, but they’re not actually writing.

Then when it comes time to independent practice, we’ll take what the teacher’s using for independent practice and we can then either leave it alone, and just have that cheat sheet or the notes and then they can use the cheat sheets, or we can highlight certain parts– “Where do you start? Okay. The parenthesis.” We’ll highlight parentheses in one color, then the exponents in another color, and then the multiplication and division in another color, and then subtraction and addition in another color, so they can follow that down. [For] some students with more significant disabilities, that part’s too much for them. So, then we just take problems and we rewrite them the similar problems to just doing the addition and subtraction part of the problem and just really highlight that, and that’s their part of [order of operations]…Or they just do the multiplication, division and the addition and subtraction with the calculator; or some of them [it] is just number recognition, they just need to find all of the fours in there.

Whereas participation in the activity may look different for each student, access to the general education content is always there. As one parent emphasized:

For us personally, it was really effective that [my son] did not leave the general education classroom and that he was fully exposed to general education material. In high school, he took pre-algebra twice and he didn’t officially pass it, even the second time, but his mastery got a lot higher. But then when he took academic support geometry, he actually passed the class as a high school junior. I look back and I think if all of those things hadn’t happened in elementary and middle school, he wouldn’t have been able to pass a high school class at that level, particularly a math class.

Across districts, educators described how they regularly collect data on student performance and use it to inform whether or not to reteach content or provide additional enrichment opportunities because the student has mastered the target. During these formative assessments, educators use accommodations to remove unnecessary barriers that could prevent students with disabilities from showing what they know and can do. All students who demonstrate mastery receive the enrichment learning opportunity, just like all students who do not demonstrate mastery receive additional instructional opportunities to learn the knowledge and skills. These data then inform the targeted instruction that can be provided based on student needs.

Sometimes educators modify targeted learning outcomes based on a student’s individual needs. This allows all students to participate in the rigorous core instruction of their grade level while individual learning targets align with the next step of the learning progression on which they are working. One Vail special educator described the role that a special education teacher plays in modifying assignments, in this case, related to literacy:

As special ed teachers, we modify the spelling tests for our students. And then we give it back to the classroom teacher. And when the teacher’s passing out the test for everyone else, the student who takes it a little bit differently will get their own personal modified list and they’re doing it with the whole class. And no one even knows that they have a different test and that student feels like they’re part of everybody else. Whether it’s just identifying the word, circling the correct one if that's what they’re able to do. Or even if it means matching the word…[or] filling in the letters or tracing the letters? Of course, it depends on the student’s need…

I have a current seventh grader who is on the spectrum and she’s probably reading comprehending at a second-grade level. And when she goes to science class, her classmates will get a book and they read about animals and then they help her write five facts about those animals. And she will dictate and they will write those facts for her. And then she gets the paper and she goes and turns it in. And so it’s just a very natural thing that the kids they just do, and that’s just what they do.

In addition to accommodations and modifications, teachers also described their use of specific practices and interventions to meet student needs. Examples of practices specific to academic learning included functional/real-world opportunities to practice skills, visual supports, academic task reminders (e.g., writing checklist), adapted books, discrete trial training, task systems, manipulatives, and questioning to ensure understanding. Likewise, practices that would support social, emotional, and behavioral needs included positive behavioral supports, check-in/check-out, visual schedules, and various peer engagement strategies. Notably, teachers in both Vail and Cecil County emphasized their use of these practices in the general education environment as well as the importance of providing the appropriate level of support to meet students’ needs while promoting their independence.

Perennial and Systemic Challenges with Inclusive Education

Despite the many encouraging successes in both Vail and Cecil County, each district continues to navigate several ongoing challenges. These challenges might be grouped into two rough categories: perennial and systemic. Perennial challenges are those that continue to persist and for which there are likely no solutions; systemic challenges, on the other hand, can be addressed even if the solutions require further systems-change work, and even if that systems-change work is outside the scope of what any district can meaningfully accomplish (e.g., as with problems requiring state or federal solutions).

Perennial Challenges

The perennial challenge encountered in both Vail and Cecil County—and for that matter in all districts—is that meaningful inclusion is new and different work, and while strategies are being implemented to make the work less taxing, there is still a need to support the complex needs of our students. As an administrator in Cecil County reflected:

It’s hard work. There is nothing simple about this. It is much easier to put kids in a segregated classroom and forget that they’re there. You have to have the gut for this work. But it is completely worth it, and it is morally imperative. But it is not simple. So, anybody that goes into this, to believe that they’re going to be able to just snap their fingers and this transformation’s going to happen—it’s ongoing. And even though I believe [inclusion has been] institutionalized here, there are still pockets that have to be fixed on a regular basis.

Indeed, as the administrator noted, “there are no simple solutions to complex problems.” There are, however, strategies that make this complicated work more manageable. One administrator from Vail, for instance, described how their district’s culture of communication helps them confront this perennial issue:

There’s a new challenge every day, every week, every month…Our goal is to problem solve, is to come together. I think the teachers feel comfortable reaching out to those of us that are [at] the district level…and just being able to be really honest, and saying, “I have no idea what to do, and I’m getting pushback from this teacher, [or] there’s some really challenging behaviors.” Maybe, if there’s been some aggression, parents are concerned. I think, again, that communication and your people knowing that they can come and tell you anything…knowing that they can have those honest conversations about what they’re struggling with and come up with solutions.

Although it is unrealistic to think that the work of inclusive education will ever be without challenge, there are plenty of ways districts can ease the burden and prevent negative consequences (e.g., burnout, community opposition to inclusion). Creating a culture of open communication is one solution, but there are others. Administrators in each district described a vision of inclusive education that focuses intensively on the local community. Our communities are currently stretched, however. For example, both districts serve large geographic areas, and because of the remoteness of the community or distance from the metropolitan area, participants reported that families rely on the district for support.

While both districts value inclusion and build partnerships across the community to facilitate this goal, occasionally situations arise that create a direct conflict with inclusive schooling. Schools sometimes work with students for whom inclusive schooling is not always possible because they are a risk to themselves or others. Both districts described instances where students with intensive behavioral or mental health concerns would need to be moved temporarily to another setting to address their complex needs. But even if this situation arises, teachers and administrators sustain their shared responsibility for the students without letting the new placement be an excuse to not serve the student. Indeed, a principal of a school in Cecil County with an intensive behavioral support class highlighted the value that the district places on cross-building and cross-agency partnerships to ensure students’ success in transitioning back to their home school.

If they come from a different building, that principal also comes in to have a conversation. They’re a part of that problem-solving team once we have that student here because the student still belongs to that building as well. So, once we see success…then there’s [an] agreed upon time where it’s like, “Okay, this child has done this, this, and this. They’ve been successful in the classroom, so now let’s talk about them moving back to the building and transitioning them back to the building.”

Here’s how one administrator in Vail described the difficult decision to remove a student from an inclusive setting:

The students that I’m talking about are typically students with significant emotional disabilities…We have a true spectrum of services within our district, on our campuses, for those students. The most restrictive that we have … is a private day program for students with emotional disabilities, but they are on our campuses, so those students still go out for lunch. They can still see their peers before and after school. They’ve got passing period. And then, we work to increase their time in the general education environment to transition them back into a less restrictive environment. [But] there have been cases that students in that environment, due to significant safety concerns…where we look at that alternative placement…We will talk about transitioning them to a program that we partner with, a different organization that is truly more restrictive…But [we] have very specific exit criteria and constant communication with that site to get them back to us when it’s safe.

It is important to stress that this administrator (and other interviewees) characterized the transition to a more restrictive environment as temporary, further noting that “we don’t do it lightly, and we don’t do it often.” As another administrator in Vail put it, “these are extreme cases.” Personnel from Cecil County shared this perspective, noting that they also take such cases seriously, emphasizing that the decision to move a student from their school to a more restrictive setting is temporary and that, during that time, personnel across sites work to ensure the student’s safe transition back to the home school. Importantly, both districts have built an infrastructure so that only students with the most severe needs require outplacement and all parties understand that this separate placement is for a limited time.

Systemic Challenges

Community also plays a key role. Having the value of inclusion, for instance, mandates that districts treat students with disabilities as equal members of the community. And adopting a community-focused approach means that districts must be concerned with issues that may be outside of their typical scope. These problems are systemic in nature.

One problem facing both districts concerns personnel shortages and turnover. As one administrator in Cecil County noted, there is a “high rate of attrition for special education teachers and professionals…And that is nationwide. There is an epidemic right now with attrition.” To counter this, Cecil County has worked to provide “job-based professional development to support [teachers].” One way of mitigating this issue is through the use of paraeducators, though this is not without its own challenges. Some educators and family members resist the idea of fading one-on-one support, coming from the mindset that individual support is always better. An administrator in Vail reflected:

Underutilizing paras sometimes can be a challenge. If people are thinking about para support in terms of it’s got to be a one-to-one thing, that can be a challenge. Whereas expanding the scope of what paraprofessionals do a little bit to where they might support several different students in a class with different needs, we have places that do that really well.

Both districts grappled with the question of how to navigate personnel and community members who believe that the way to achieve success in inclusive schooling is through adults who overcompensate for students with disabilities. As one Vail administrator reflected:

There’s always the barriers…with the discomfort, the unknowns. And so, sometimes, when we have new people that we’re working with, whether it’s at a business or a new staff member that comes in, it’s just that teaching piece and trying to get them to understand that we practice something called [presumed] competence. We [presume] that our students can participate and be a part of any task or anything that we’re requesting of them. And then we teach from there. So, if they’re not able to do something, how do we navigate through that?

But this points to another tension with the use of paraeducators: relying on the least paid members of the school to do some of its hardest work. As a teacher from Vail put it:

Paras make peanuts. They don’t get paid over breaks. They don’t get paid over the summer, fall break, [or] spring break. You can’t live off a para salary, especially when you have breaks in salary. So, unless you live at home with your parents and you’re young, or you have a spouse or a partner that can help support you, you can’t be a para…A lot of people leave because of that. They try it because they love the kids, but if they don’t have another income, they can’t be a para, And that’s really hard because we’ve lost a lot of really good people, because you can make more at McDonald’s than you can working with kids.

Of course, there are other structural issues, too: funding, for example. Inclusive education requires more staffing and upgrades to physical spaces districtwide to ensure schools and classrooms can accommodate the different needs and co-teaching arrangements characteristic of inclusive schooling. As a teacher in Vail reflected:

Money [is a barrier]. When they cut funds…we can’t raise our prices. There are no prices. We can’t raise menu prices as the restaurants can. So they’re going to cut funds, and that’s going to cut support for special education. It’s expensive; special education is very expensive in a lot of ways. People are expensive to pay to work, and that is a huge problem. And when that’s not compensated for…positions get cut. And unfortunately, it really comes down to [special education] and paras. That [is] really where that gets cut quite often.

Cecil County experienced similar issues with funding. A central office administrator there tied funding to another issue affecting both districts: the relationship between funding and politics, and whether or not the community will support extra expenses to fund inclusive education.

The populace in our district…[is] on the very right side of the conservative [spectrum] in terms of politics. And that does impact the day-to-day operation of our schools because we are funded through a county government structure. Our county governments are our primary funding source, so we don’t go out to referendum like some states do, and we rely on [the county] for the majority of our funding. And they are not necessarily pro putting money into public school education. So, there’s a lot of political pressure here in terms of our ability to be funded at a level that enables us to be as functional as we would like to be. So, it seems like, in my tenure, I’ve had more budget cycles where I’m cutting things than I am making improvements or adding staff.

Of course, politics does not only affect funding. There are political implications across the educational spectrum that impact districts, which can impede how administrators can use strategic planning and implementation of inclusive practices to support students in inclusive settings. One interviewee from Cecil County detailed the effect that politics can have on the curriculum in their relating an experience about a restorative practices initiative:

We’ve had some growing pains…We need to make sure that we’re working kids back into our community, not singling them out…we still fight a little bit of those other things that are out there because we are also experiencing a lot of conservatism in our county as well, which is a struggle.

Outcomes of Inclusive Education

Taking a community approach to inclusive education has produced one clear and pronounced outcome in both Vail and Cecil County: widespread community acceptance of individuals with disabilities. Across interviews with members of each district, anecdotes of this community acceptance appeared again and again. While the nature of this acceptance varied from anecdote to anecdote, together they illustrate a profound shift: inclusive education enacted with a community-centric lens decreases the marginalization of individuals with disabilities that is so prevalent elsewhere. Here’s how one parent from Vail described this:

It’s been many, many years since I was in school, but it was so different. The kids that received special services…they were in another classroom all off on their own, never included, and that’s not okay. So, the inclusiveness to me out here has just been remarkable. Remarkable. And they are loved by their peers, and they are respected, and they are treated equally…As a parent of a special needs child, there isn’t enough words that I could express that bring the joy to my heart, because that has made all the difference in [my daughter’s] life, and I’m grateful for that.

Inclusion remains visible no matter where you go in each district, but it begins in the classroom as one Cecil County teacher reflected: “I think it’s affected them in a positive light…I feel like they feel like they’re part of the classroom.” This acceptance, however, also extends beyond the classroom. As a teacher from Vail commented, “being able to go at recess and at lunchtime and see students that I support who may have significant cognitive disabilities…fully integrated and playing with their peers. To me, [that] is one of the biggest indicators of inclusive practices.”

Acceptance in the school environment was not the only type of acceptance that surfaced. Interviewees from both districts described the acceptance of individuals with disabilities in the wider community. A parent from Vail described the experiences of her son who had graduated from the district:

My son has Down syndrome. He is employed and has a very meaningful job. He has friends at work, they go out about every two weeks, [and] they all go to the movies together. None of the other individuals have disabilities and they are just good friends… They know he can’t drive, so they volunteer every single time to come and pick him up; it’s just part of their trip to the movies, even though it’s way out of their way. And it’s just not a big deal because we do that in Vail. That’s what we do in Vail because that’s what we did in [the] Vail School District.

Other outcomes appear to be mutually constitutive and, for that matter, do not only extend to students with disabilities. Interviewees described positive outcomes for all students. For example, one administrator in Vail described growth in empathy as a result of inclusion:

It was very positive…it helped kids learn compassion, typically developing kids. They learned that not everybody’s the same, [and] that some people need more help than others. I think it developed tolerance and just a broader view of the world.

But this outcome was no accident. These districts adopted specific policies to promote successful inclusive education for all students—the use of peer mentors, for example. Yet, even students who do not peer mentor see students with significant disabilities in their classrooms. Parents, teachers, and administrators alike described the relationships and friendships students with and without significant disabilities form and maintain for years. Interviewees described how these relationships improve the community by setting students up for postsecondary life. This notion resonated as a Vail high school teacher described their goal for all students:

Our mentality is so much focused on after high school and the real world. That’s what we’re setting you up for and so we want to set you up to be an effective and functioning member of society and we want you to be able to be understanding of all types of people.

The benefits of inclusive education are not only social. They have translated into educational successes. Here an administrator from Cecil County described this:

When you expose students to the general education setting and the general education curriculum, and provide them [with] the structures and supports that they need to be successful—and they’re involved with their peers in a meaningful way—students will amaze you. We saw students who the educators thought would be nonverbal for the rest of their lives start to talk and interact with their peers. And parents who said, “We used to get together with family. My son or daughter never interacted with their cousins, and now they do.”

Inclusive education has also led to improved postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities. For example, prior to the pandemic, over 90% of Vail’s graduates were engaged in postsecondary education, work, or another training program (compared to roughly 76% for the rest of Arizona). Moreover, across both districts, interviewees emphasized transition planning for postsecondary success (e.g., bi-annual conferences with the school counselor to ensure students are on track for graduation, fading support to foster greater independence prior to graduation, developing a 504 plan in preparation for obtaining postsecondary support). A Vail administrator reflected on this:

Within the community, we have a lot of businesses, employers, things like that, [and they] either grew up in the Vail School District with inclusive practices, had children in the Vail School District, or have just had a lot of interactions and are now open to having students with significant disabilities as interns, as employees. Because, again, they’re just community members.

Of course, when districts improve outcomes in this way, it leads to other outcomes, too. Both districts, for example, experienced an influx of people moving there just to take advantage of these inclusive services. Here, an administrator from Cecil County described this phenomenon:

We actually have found, just in the past couple years, our numbers of out-of-state transfers have skyrocketed. This year alone…we have out-of-state transfers [from] … Ohio. We have multiple students from New York, California, Tennessee, all over the country. And when we asked their parents, “how did you find Cecil County on a map, we’re not this big metropolis,” a lot of them shared that they heard through friends, or through family, that we are a fully inclusive county.

An administrator in Vail commented that “People flock to get to the schools there, so it really draws in families … that are seeking better services, especially special education services.” Another administrator shared that Vail experienced such rapid growth they had to get creative with how they served students so their buildings were not overcrowded:

My first year when I started, we were on tracks. There were four different tracks. What would happen is, basically there were four sets of students within a school building and one set of students was always off on break. Because we have a year-round calendar here. So, one set of students was always off on a break while the other three were on campus. So, your school was overcrowded by 25%, but you never had them all on campus. We ran year-round tracks for, I want to say four years maybe, just because we couldn’t handle the growth and how fast the community was growing and so many students coming in.

Truly students in Vail and Cecil County have benefited from the inclusive education experiences they have received. Individuals with disabilities are accepted in their school and communities. Students experience positive social and academic growth, and this lends itself to improved postsecondary success. These successes translate to families and communities who are stronger as a result of the inclusive educational experiences their children have received in the district.

Discussion and Implications

Inclusive education occurs districtwide in both Vail and Cecil County. From the time students enroll in either district until the day they exit school, they experience an educational environment inclusive of other students of all strengths, needs, abilities, and differences who are participating as valued members of the school community. This perspective, of all people being valuable members of the community, was echoed across interviews in Vail and Cecil County, where district representatives described their approach to inclusive education as going beyond students with disabilities being accepted by their peers to students being a meaningful part of the school community. Interviewees described how this meaningful inclusion from preschool through graduation normalizes the reality that each member of the school community is unique, that every member has something to offer, and that it is the shared responsibility of all members to ensure each and every student is included in all aspects of their education.

Interviewees from both districts described a belief that students with disabilities should do the same things as their peers and receive the same academic and non-academic opportunities. They presume the competence of all students and they hold high expectations, so each student has the opportunity to rise to the challenges set before them. Vail and Cecil County are committed to serving students and to providing support when and where needed based on each student’s individualized strengths and needs. They give students with disabilities leadership opportunities and get them involved in the community. They believe students with significant cognitive disabilities should receive their specialized services and supports in general education environments and that any additional services and supports that cannot be provided in the general education setting should only be used when needed and for as long as needed – and not more. This approach to education builds each student’s independence and ability to be a productive member of society after graduation. It inspires confidence in students that they can succeed and hope for the potential of their life after graduation.

As mentioned in the findings, there are some instances when it is necessary for school personnel to remove a student from their environment. Although both districts identified ways to allow students with disabilities time to decompress – these opportunities were separate from their typically developing peers. An opportunity exists to promote these safe areas for all students that may be experiencing an emotional, behavioral, or physical need that requires them to be removed from the general education setting. It would be universally beneficial to promote spaces within the school settings that encourage all students – with and without disabilities – to explore safe ways to express themselves.

Community-Grounded Systems Change Model

The findings in this study signify that schooling is a local effort. Administrators from both districts painstakingly outlined the onboarding process with local stakeholders—families, community members, district personnel that shaped the district-wide inclusive practices that led our research team to their doorstep. Similarly, administrators commented on the financial costs of highly inclusive practices, which require local support to fund what other revenue streams from state and federal governments do not. Still, the local school system is enmeshed in a nationwide web of schools that operate under what Tye (2000) has called the “deep structure”, or systemic norms that limit the possibilities for localized innovation. These norms are sustained through a top-down ideology that assumes school reform is realized through common academic standards and external evaluations that measure accountability (Mehta, 2013; Ravitch, 2000). The severe limitation of this belief is it overlooks the capabilities of educational professionals and the capacity for more localized forms of change (Meier & Wood, 2004; Ravitch, 2010).

The Vail and Cecil County school districts’ ability to generate systems change that pushes back against deep structures of public schooling is rooted in a value-based approach oriented towards “the good.” Lightfoot (1983) is one of the first to explore in depth (through portraiture) schools that manage to elevate the moral imperative of schooling to supersede pushes for human capital production. Similarly, in her work Schools that Succeed, Chenoweth (2017) profiles low-income school districts where leadership teams generate systems change and consequently student success (by many measures) through leveraged resources such as time, money, and faculty expertise to position their local school to build social capital for individuals and the community.

Fullan, in his broad scope of work, has repeatedly looked at systems change from the lens of “goodness.” In a recent think piece, Fullan (2020) suggests the nature of educational leadership is changing and includes four attributes of leaders poised to navigate their districts through the stressors of increasingly complex societal issues (pp. 140-141): (1) leaders are experts in the context; (2) leaders intentionally involve multiple stakeholders to solve complex problems; (3) leaders believe in internal accountability and achieve it through forms of individual and collective efficacy; (4) leaders embed their school systems in broader networks that include other schools and intermediary organizations. Leaders in both Vail and Cecil County possessed these attributes and employed them to sustain the systems change that began years ago, but also to navigate systemwide disrupters—for example, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paralleling the findings that Vail and Cecil County possess the attributes of leaders, the districts also embody the four key domains of an inclusive instructional leadership framework (Howley & Telfer, 2020). These domains are (a) prioritizing the improvement of teaching and learning; (b) building capacity through support and accountability; (c) sustaining an open and collaborative culture; and (d) promoting systemwide learning. Interviewees across districts shared their perspectives and experiences about how they implement inclusive practices by developing effective collaboration systems, building the knowledge and skills of instructional teams, and ensuring all personnel take ownership of students on their school campus. Each district transitioned its approach to education in a slow and systematic manner, garnering buy-in from key stakeholders along the way and allowing the champions and student successes to accelerate the work. This continues to be the approach to the use of new inclusive practices, which, for example, start with a small team or school piloting an initiative and then building it from there, sustaining what works and leaving the rest. These efforts are grounded in each district’s commitment to improving teaching and learning for all students, and to ensuring each student is a valued member of the school community.

Community-Level Social Capital

The struggle for what public schools should “be” and “do” persists. One line of thinking is that public schools are a driver of the economy and the system must be flexible to pivot accordingly. Another, broader line of thinking is that public schools are civic institutions established to support a representative democracy—students are preparing to be active participants when they reach adulthood. Both districts in this study operate within the tensions of these views. Ultimately, their inclusive practices are rooted in the belief that schools can comply with demands associated with mass standardization while still orienting towards the good. This has led to each district becoming necessary to their communities in a distinct way—they have established a track record of building social capital that improves community life. Primarily, this comes from each district’s focus on students with significant cognitive disabilities realizing a continuum of independence in their adult lives and how the districts provide access to the community through academic resources, but also social and developmental supports.

Both Vail and Cecil County also directed concerted attention to the particularities of place. Interviewees reported how local context informed the districts’ systems. This community-oriented view of education draws on the idea that schools constitute an essential part of the nation’s democratic framework, and are not merely a pipeline for creating workers in a capitalist economy (see, e.g., Meier, 2002; 2009). Both districts described coming to the idea that students with significant cognitive disabilities should attend public school in their home community. But while this awakening proved critical, it did not change the complexities involved in making it possible. Each district’s approach to inclusive education required collaboration from multiple stakeholders both inside the district and out. Furthermore, other districts seeking to shift to an inclusive model of education might also benefit from a community-grounded approach.

COVID as Stress to the System that Reveals Weaknesses and Implications

At the onset, the COVID-19 pandemic shut the lights off in public education, and almost immediately the role public schools play in the day-to-day structure of the nation surfaced. In the months that followed frustration emerged as the nation reconciled with the tensions of how and when to return to in-person learning. One agreement was clearly reached: Public schools are necessary for the functioning of families, communities, and the nationwide economy. For the Vail and Cecil County districts, the pandemic made visible the specific role each plays as a key access point. For the first time in decades, children with significant cognitive disabilities and their families struggled to gain adequate access to these supports. This indicated to the districts the extent of their progress over the last decades and the imminent danger regression might impose. Yet it also revealed instabilities within each system. For example, it became clear the onboarding work of community support is not complete. Both districts experienced some setbacks when parents of children across the learning continuum were competing to regain access to the district’s physical spaces. Similarly, resource and staffing gaps became direr during the transition back to in-person learning because of an intensified need for academic, social, and behavioral support, not just for students with disabilities, but for all students.

Implications for Inclusive Education

  1. Root systems change in the local context: Leadership in both districts gained momentum for inclusive schooling by first doing the hard work of onboarding local stakeholders (i.e., families, community members, and district personnel) who were often skeptical of the idea. Over time, the onboarding phase transitioned to phases of acceptance, appreciation, normalization, and eventually demand for continued services.
  2. Approach IDEA as a moral imperative: Both districts envisioned inclusive education as serving a greater community good and recognized how inclusive schooling simultaneously enhanced the social capital of individuals, and also the community at large. The districts did not merely adhere to IDEA, they integrated inclusive principles and values into the mission and strategic plans for their districts. Importantly, leadership recognized the complexity of this strategy and consistently sought out feedback, and promoted high levels of participation from district personnel.
  3. The organizational hierarchy as a support structure: Our research team identified a complex organizational hierarchy in both districts that was necessary to support inclusive education across geographically large districts. Notably, this hierarchy is what made it possible to facilitate inclusive practices systemwide, as opposed to in centralized locales. This hierarchy also formed the basis for internal accountability checks and balances.
  4. Focus on the process: Interviewees from districts could identify pivotal moments over the last two to three decades that precipitated change, but it is attention to processes that have sustained change. These processes vary. Some focus on accountability to classroom practices, whereas others deal with hiring and orientation protocols. Sometimes a process is developed in response to disrupting events. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic districts had to establish processes for remote learning options for students with significant cognitive disabilities and then new processes for bringing these students back to campus during the return to in-person learning. Additionally, as the districts’ inclusive practices became more refined, leadership sought opportunities to embed the district into networks that provided external support.

Implications for Future Research

Our findings build upon research that indicates systems change can be used to orient public schooling towards a greater good that serves individuals, but also, critically, the community the local school is in service, too. Case studies of the post-high school experience of adults with significant cognitive disabilities who were once beneficiaries of highly inclusive practices are necessary to further understand the extent to which a school system can help students achieve this form of self-actualization. This study also examined two districts (one rural and one suburban) with large service areas, student populations, and district-wide infrastructure. Given our findings that context matters, similar studies of small rural districts and large urban districts would enhance this line of inquiry. Finally, this case study did not include a representative sample of general educators. Given their role in working with students with and without disabilities, future research should include their lived experiences to fully understand their use of inclusive practices to support all learners.


The research findings are clear. Inclusive education is a districtwide value in Vail and Cecil County, and community-oriented system change efforts ensure the effective implementation of inclusive schooling throughout the district. Neither district believes that the setting in which instruction occurs should be impacted just because a student has a significant disability. Instead, each district starts as inclusive as possible and lessens those inclusive opportunities only if necessary. To promote the success of inclusive opportunities, collaborative teams design and implement the academic, social, emotional, and behavioral supports needed for students to strive and use peers as support as much as possible. Vail and Cecil County's value on inclusive education radiate through each district’s words and actions. Their district teams work diligently to provide students with significant cognitive disabilities the same opportunities that every other student in the district receives. They foster a climate where all students and staff are esteemed school and community members. These districts’ commitment and dedication stem from a belief that access to inclusive education is a right and is what works best for all students. This belief drives their policies, systems, practices, and relationships, which work together to make inclusive education a success. A Vail special education coordinator’s statement summarizes this research:

Just being in the same area to me is not [inclusion]. Is the person actually contributing to the community and the community contributing back? It’s this bidirectional thing. And it’s like any relationship, it’s got to be purposeful and meaningful.


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Appendix A

Screening Questionnaire

  1. What is the district’s view of equity, inclusion, and social justice?
  2. What does the district do to support the learning and well-being of all students?
  3. To what extent does the district include students with significant cognitive disabilities in general education classrooms?
  4. How widespread is this practice across the district?
  5. Provide a few examples that explain the extent to which students with significant cognitive disabilities are included in general education classrooms across the district.
  6. What district-wide actions have been taken to increase the meaningful and active engagement of students with significant cognitive disabilities across environments (including curricular and non-curricular activities) and/or their relationship building with peers without disabilities?
  7. Provide a few examples that explain further what the social interactions of students with significant cognitive disabilities and students without disabilities looks like in your district.
  8. What district-wide policies or initiatives encourage or require inclusion of students with significant cognitive disabilities in general education settings?
  9. What district-wide structures and supports have you used or expanded upon to promote the use of inclusive practices that result in higher levels of learning for all students, and the movement of students with significant cognitive disabilities to more inclusive settings?

Appendix B

Sample Interview Protocol: Administrators

Introduction & Overview [All stakeholder groups]

  • THANK YOU for your time & willingness to participate today.
  • Your opinions, perspectives, and ideas are valuable and incredibly important for this work. We are excited to hear and learn from you today.


  • Who: Interviewer & role in the center/research
  • Project goals: The purpose of this project is to describe the context, structures, activities, dispositions, and supports that make inclusive practice effective for students with severe disabilities. We aim to get an in-depth look at what has happened in the past and is currently happening to make inclusive practices successful for two exemplar districts in the United States so we can help other districts learn from this research.
    • Interview purpose: Today, I am hosting this interview to hear your perspective on the district’s [fill in name] inclusive practices.
  • Expectations: Our discussion will last approximately an hour. Your participation is completely voluntary. You can stop participating or leave this conversation at any time.
  • Recording & confidentiality: I will record this conversation and we will have it transcribed so we don’t miss any important insights.
    • Any feedback or comments you share, will not be linked to you or your name, rather we will summarize trends and experiences from each interview, and identify themes across sessions.
    • Focus groups (if applicable): What is said here, stays here. We ask that you not share other people’s experiences or comments to others outside this group.
  • Any questions?


  • Consent: When we shared the interview link with you, she provided you the information document in the message. Given that document and everything I’ve just discussed, would you still like to participate in our discussion today?

Place-based Factor Questions

1. Community is the geographic area that surrounds your district, and includes the citizens living within it, businesses and non-profits, and forms of social infrastructure. Can you describe how your community influences your district’s approach to inclusive practices?

2. In regards to implementing inclusive practices, what assets does the community provide and what role do they play within the district? What barriers do you encounter and how do you respond to those barriers?

a. Possible Follow-Ups:

i. How does state policy influence decisions you make and actions you take in regards to implementing inclusive programming throughout the district/building?

ii. How do you work through barriers affiliated with specific policies?

iii. Do you experience any external pressures from the local community when it comes to inclusive programming?

Broader Mission and Vision Questions

3. Please briefly outline your district’s mission in regards to equity, social justice, and inclusive practices.

4. Can you recall a pivotal moment that led to widespread change across the district?

a. Possible Follow-Ups:

i. How many years have you been with the district? Upon reflection, how has your definition of inclusion changed over your time working within the district? (Ask in increments of 5 years.)

ii. We understand your district’s broader mission of inclusion to be (summarize from their response). Building upon this, what supports do you offer classroom teachers? What about families?

iii. The COVID-19 pandemic is considered a historical disrupter to public education nationwide. In the case of your district, how has the pandemic allowed you to recognize successful inclusion practice as well as areas of weakness?

Organizational Synergy Questions

5. Would you describe specific ways your district focuses on inclusion across buildings and grade levels, and the policies that encourage or require inclusive practices throughout individual classrooms?

a. Possible Follow-Ups:

i. Throughout the interviews we learned some of the key ways the district focuses on inclusion (summarize). Which practices are the most widespread?

ii. As an administrative team, how do you evaluate the implementation of inclusive practices? Through these evaluations, what issues have you encountered, and how do you address them?

Agency, Action, and Classroom Autonomy at the Building Level Questions

6. What structures and supports have you used to provide opportunities for students with significant cognitive disabilities to access inclusive settings?

7. What structures and supports have you used to encourage higher levels of learning for all students in inclusive settings.

a. Possible Follow-Ups:

i. Throughout the interviews we’ve learned some of the key ways the district focuses on inclusion (summarize). Describe what that looks like from your perspective. What role do you plan in those efforts?

ii. As a building administrator, how did you first introduce these programs or policies with your staff?

Additional possible follow-ups: Did you face any resistance, and if so, how did you approach resolving that? Did you have early adopters that engaged more enthusiastically, and if so, what separated those staff form the others?

iii. As a building administrator, how do you monitor the progress of these programs and evaluate their effectiveness?

Additional possible follow-ups: How would a staff member be rewarded for excelling at implementing these practices? How would a staff member be remediated if struggling to implement these practices effectively/appropriately?

Social & Peer Engagement Questions

8. What district-wide actions have been taken to increase the meaningful and active engagement of students with significant cognitive disabilities across environments (including curricular and non-curricular activities) and/or their relationship building with peers without disabilities?

a. Possible follow-ups:

i. How have these practices changed culture the social communities in your district/building/classroom?

ii. What is the district’s rationale or your personal rationale for encouraging peer involvement?

iii. What have reactions been like for parents of students without disabilities and the community at large?

Appendix C

Table C1. Final Categories, Definitions, and Example Codes



Example Codes

Historical context

Initial barriers and dilemmas experienced when shifting toward an inclusive model and the responses and reactions of the district to those barriers and dilemmas. Excerpts in this category indicate something that occurred early on.

Pivotal moments; initial resistance (e.g., experiences with exclusive practices; educators’ uncertainty about responsibilities; lack of full support of educators or family members); beginning new programs

Challenges after an inclusive model has been established

Challenges that reveal a more nuanced view of how inclusive education changes and the district sustains inclusive education over time in response to new or ongoing barriers and dilemmas. These events have occurred in the past, emerging after full implementation of the district’s inclusive model, and conflict with the district’s viewpoints on inclusive practice.

Not checking a box – fully including; funding (e.g., paraeducator salary, cost of services); supporting paraeducators (e.g., physical, emotional, training); rate of growth in the district.

Community assets

Community demographics and external support structures that are not controlled by the district, but that when in place make the district’s approach to inclusion feasible and sustainable.

Transition opportunities / community-based learning (e.g., working in the community); early learning partnerships; community and parent resource networks (formal or informal); relationships with families


Embedded within both the school district and community culture are the shared belief and unwavering commitment regarding the inclusion of students with significant cognitive disabilities as well as all individuals. It is this belief system that reinforces inclusive education districtwide.

Describing beliefs that undergird inclusive practices in academic and non-academic spaces; inclusive identity; support for family advocacy; top-down commitment; beliefs that individuals with disabilities should be full members of the community; general educators’ ownership of students with disabilities

Systems thinking

District-driven strategic planning and implementation that is implemented districtwide in a manner that is replicable across buildings, but also adaptable to site-specific demands and societal changes.

Roles of specific positions; unique staffing positions; hiring practices; onboarding; professional development norms; evaluation practices; problem-solving approaches


Examples of the impact the pandemic has had on inclusive practice.

Opportunities to interact with peers; reestablishing community commitment; revealing ineffective practices for students with significant cognitive disabilities; increasing mental health needs

Inclusive practices

Specific examples of practices, strategies, or approaches being used by the district to support the meaningful inclusion of students with disabilities in general education settings.

Peer support models; student-centered practices; embedding social-emotional-behavioral instruction into the daily routines of the classroom; universal design for learning; positive behavior intervention and supports; adapted instruction in the general education setting; general and special educators collaborating

Current tensions

Challenges that are current tensions for the district. This category reflects a continuum of codes that describe struggles that are not necessarily good or bad, but that are current issues the district is navigating.

The growing number of mental health needs; lack of services available in the community; the need for separate settings to address students’ needs; reintegration after instruction in a separate setting; political context

Long-term outcomes

Longitudinal evidence of districtwide outcomes related to inclusive practice.

Overall acceptance of individuals with disabilities as a part of the community; viewed as a model for other districts; peer models enrolling in and completing educator preparation programs; discussion of data in the aggregate.

Anecdotal descriptions of impact

Examples of positive outcomes for specific students with disabilities.

Descriptions of growth in student achievement (e.g., academically, socially, independence)

Multiple ideas

An excerpt that captures multiple ideas within the overall coding scheme.

Values-based and systems thinking; challenges after an inclusive practice has been established and inclusive practices

Excluded ideas

Excerpts that should not be coded for this research

Participants reflect on events of the past outside of the district; actions taken by individual parents that describe how they raise their child; vague descriptions of what happens in the district.


Excerpts the researcher views as important but is unsure where it belongs or if a new category is needed. Coding in this category resulted in the excerpt being brought to the research team for discussion.

Appendix D

Table D1. District Demographics (NCES)


Cecil County

Vail Unified


Rural: Fringe

Town: Fringe

Total Population




85% White

68% White

6% Black

23% Hispanic/Latinx

4% Hispanic/Latinx

3% Black

3% Two or more races

3% Two or more races

1% Asian

2% Asian

1% American Indian/Alaskan Native

Median Household Income



Poverty Level



Total Students



Students with Disability



Total Staff



Teachers Employed



Aides Employed



Number of Buildings



Annual Revenue per Student



Note. Data taken from NCES (2022).

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Ottley, J. R., Yahn, J. J., Clifton, J. A., & Storie, S. O. (2023). This is who we are and what we do: A case study of two districts exemplifying inclusivity. TIES Center;

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership. Collaborating partners are: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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