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Q&A with Peggy Blair

1. Peggy, why does Avon Maitland have a “Learning for All” program?

Peggy Blair 1Learning For All is the title of a document from the Ontario Ministry of Education. This document guides the work of district school boards in our province for all students. The foundation for work with all students is based on some articulated beliefs including “All students can succeed” and “Classroom teachers are the key educators for a student’s literacy and numeracy development”. We have used these beliefs to shape the supports required to bring inclusion of students to scale. To ensure students with special education needs are successful in regular classroom settings, we have introduced fifteen ‘Learning For All Coaches’ to partner with teachers in the elementary and secondary panels.

2. What is the role of the teachers working as “coaches”?

Prior to starting on the journey to inclusion, I reviewed current literature and best practices related to systemic change. I knew that a consultative role would not offer enough support for classroom teachers faced with meeting the needs of students that had not been in regular classrooms. I also knew that if we wanted coaches to be welcomed into classrooms, they could not be perceived as an ‘expert’. As Steven Katz has said, “If we knew the answer to a problem of practice, then we would already be doing it”.

The role of the coach needed to be a job-embedded position where both people worked on the Collaborative Inquiry Cycle: Plan-Act-Observe-Reflect. The student learning need would become the teacher learning need. To be an effective partner would require a coach to be in a learning stance not a judgmental one. The focus for the partnership was to be based on key elements of the Learning For All K-12 document: differentiated instruction, universal design for learning, assessment for, as and of learning, in conjunction with the IEP.

In keeping with the AMDSB’s Strategic Plan, I also wanted to have coaches and teachers leverage technology (largely iPads) to enhance the learning of our students. To ensure teachers felt supported, I felt that coaches needed to be in the school working alongside a specific teacher(s) at least once a week for up to a half-day for semester or the entire school year. When hiring for these fifteen positions, we looked for teachers with a variety of backgrounds not just special education. This was intentional on my part. Successful inclusion of students requires a team of people looking from various perspectives at how best to do things.

Now in the second year of this work, Learning For All Coaches continue to work in collaborative partnerships with teachers in regular classrooms who have students with specific learning profiles such as developmental disabilities, mild intellectual disabilities, autism or multiple disabilities. In the past, these students would have been placed in a self-contained setting. Now these young people are part of the larger school experience.

3. What does it mean for a school to be inclusive in Avon Maitland?

We are working towards a preferred vision of inclusion in the board. This would mean that students are placed in regular classrooms in their home school with age-appropriate peers. Students are included both socially and academically. A sense of belonging is at the core of inclusion. I would like all people to feel that diversity enriches each school community.

We do have a draft definition that was wordsmithed by a number of school administrators. This definition is undergoing some changes as a result of input from the Special Education Advisory Committee. It will continue to be refined through consultation with additional stakeholders.

I have learned that the work to build inclusive school communities will require a sustained effort over many years with very intentional leadership moves by staff and students alike.

4. Avon Maitland has been described as a “small, rural school district”. How does this affect your efforts to strengthen inclusive education practices?

Peggy Blair 2
Peggy Blair with Amy Kipfer, an Avon Maitland “Learning For All Coach”

Yes we are a smaller board – approx. 16, 000 students. There are several benefits to working on inclusive education in a smaller school board. Because of the size of the board, we have less central infrastructure. This means that we can be responsive to student needs in a quick, direct manner. The lack of central staff also results in the need for staff to be industrious; people have to operate outside narrow boundaries of specific roles. Another benefit of bringing inclusion to scale in a smaller board is the ability to move things along more quickly. As well, the central staff in a small board has the ability to know the strengths and needs of individual students at a very granular level. Finally, there is a greater likelihood of personal connections between staff and students. They would see each other outside of school hours in neighbourhoods and communities.

5. What are the 2 or 3 most positive outcomes of your “Learning for All Coaches” work?

There are a number of positive outcomes of the Learning For All Coaches work in schools. I think the benefits can be looked at in terms of ‘big ideas’. It is important to state that teachers want to meet the needs of all learners in their classrooms. It can be challenging to program for a student with more complex, learning needs. The coaching partnership enables teachers to feel capable of meeting the needs of diverse learners. Another benefit is a shift from a deficit lens to one of ability. Students are exceeding everyone’s expectations. One other significant outcome from the work on inclusion by coaches is related to student voice. Young people are asking why their peers have been placed in segregated settings. These same young people feel that their peers make valuable contributions to everyone’s learning.

6. Can you share what the key challenges you will have going forward?

Instead of challenges, I would like to think of obstacles as an opportunity to put next generation learning strategies to work: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication and problem-solving. One of the things, I will need to continue to consider is the effect of changing roles, responsibilities and practices. I know that we have to go slow to go fast. While I might want all students included all of the time, I want to ensure that students and staff are experiencing success in regular classrooms. We have found that when inclusion of a student in regular classroom is going well, the inclusion of more students in the school accelerates. Effective change results in new learning for staff. Change also brings about feelings of discomfort. It is essential to recognize these feelings and provide support.

We are fortunate in Ontario to have a supportive funding model for Special Education. Throughout this province, a number of boards including the AMDSB continue to experience declining enrolment. With fewer students in schools, funding is reduced. However, the senior staff in the AMDSB has purposefully aligned funding to the two core priorities in the strategic plan. The one related to this work is “We will create positive, inclusive environments”. To ensure resources are meeting the needs of our students, we continue to monitor impact of programs and supports. We also look for evidenced-based practices and programs to ensure we are closing the achievement gaps for exceptional learners.

Lastly the journey to inclusion is allowing us to move special education to the ‘middle’. Moving to inclusion is causing us to align practices with the Program Department. Special Education is being demystified. I would hypothesize that this shift will result in moving ownership of student learning from special education staff to the classroom teacher. I have noticed that changes related to existing roles and responsibilities result in a sense of mourning by individuals. The stages of grief noted by Kubler Ross are relevant to the movement away from a specific service delivery model to a new one. It doesn’t mean we stop our inclusive education efforts. This is where there is need for pressure to keep moving forward but also support for teachers and other staff. Our school leaders and central staff of the board continue to honour voices and past practices as well as providing next steps.

7. There are 72 boards in Ontario. How do these efforts in Avon Maitland fit in the bigger picture?

The Ministry of Education has developed a document “Ontario’s Equity and Inclusive Strategy: Realizing the Promise of Diversity”. One of the areas of diversity that we have considered in the AMDSB in terms of the strategy is cognitive ability. The saying ‘rising tides floats all boats’ supports work being done in school boards across the province regarding all aspects of diversity including our work with inclusive education. Here we have made a concerted effort to support students with exceptional learning needs in regular classrooms to bring about greater equity of outcomes. I continue to hear stories from schools about students who are now in regular classrooms. These students are participating in increasing numbers of academic activities. In an effort to spread the word about inclusive education, Learning For All Coaches continue to share our work at various venues throughout the province.

8. What do you think it will take to see more systemic inclusive education practices in Ontario schools?

I would like to say that all boards of education in Ontario are working on inclusive education because of the diversity in our province. Each school board will look at what best meets the needs of their learners when making decisions about inclusion. I think the notion of inclusion begins with a critical review of practices related to inclusion of all students. We need to see that inclusion of all students is possible regardless of need. And the benefits are exponential: socially and academically for all learners. In Ontario, many boards are using the work of Carol Dwek on growth mindsets (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, 2007). Growth mindsets will allow educators to consider having more students included.

It will be important to share personal narratives of students who are successful. We are accumulating stories of students who are successfully moving to regular classrooms or who are entering school placements in regular classrooms.  The voices of parents and young people can play a major role in moving inclusion forward. Recently we asked a young man about his thoughts on being included in the regular classroom. He said, “I like inclusion because now people will know that I am nice”. How heartbreaking that until recently he thought his placement was not with all of his peers because he was a challenge. In the AMDSB, these voices need to be heard and considered when looking at educational placements. In the words of Maya Angelou, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

Now that we know more, we have to do better for our students.

We asked Peggy to share several anecdotes about staff members – a principal or perhaps a teacher – who has made a big change in practice linked to the “Learning for All” program? Several examples of changes in practice linked to the move to inclusive education from Avon Maitland Schools follow.

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