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Don't leave students with disabilities out of CA's massive community schools investment


This article was co-authored by Hayin Kimner, Managing Director of the CA Community Schools Learning Exchange (CSLX), and Kristen Wright, the Executive Director of Equity, Prevention and Intervention at the Sacramento County Office of Education.

California’s lowest-performing and most-segregated student group is at risk of being left out of one of the state’s most important education reforms — the unprecedented investment in community schools.

At both the February and April 2023 California Advisory Commission on Special Education meetings, state education leaders were asked if, where and how students with disabilities were intentionally included in the state’s largest one-time education investment to date: a $4.1 billion allocation for a competitive state grant program to support the planning and implementation of community schools.

The answer, in short — they were not.

Despite a decade of momentum, statutory assertions, statewide litigation, technical assistance dollars, bold statewide targets, and multiple edicts proclaiming California to be on the road to increased inclusivity and reduced segregation of students with disabilities, there is nothing notable to point to in the community schools grant applications or otherwise to ensure local educational agencies are intentionally planning for how students with disabilities will be included (and not segregated) in their transformation to community schools. This is a disappointing omission.

Contrary to common misperception, special education — by legal definition — is not a separate place nor a class that a student is “in.” The term refers to specially designed instruction, supports and services that enable a student with a disability to fully access and make progress in their academic and social-emotional learning alongside peers with and without disabilities. High-quality special education thrives within an integrated general education system, where universally designed teaching and learning and a mindset that all students belong and can achieve, is accompanied by a shared responsibility to ensure every student feels valued, supported and a deep sense of belonging.

Fortunately, these practices are also at the heart of successful and effective community school strategies.

A community school requires a fundamental repositioning of students and their families and a reimagining of how adults work together to create rich and inclusive learning opportunities for diverse learners. Students are more than diagnostic data points, clients, patients or individualized education programs (IEPs). They are not passive recipients of the expert knowledge of the adults around them. Every student is a central and dynamic component within a community; they are empowered and supported in the learning, health and welfare of themselves and their peers. They are learning from the subtleties of school who belongs and who does not. They are learning who has a rightful presence in their classrooms.

The state’s massive investment in community school implementation presents a timely convergence of research-based themes, including the science of learning and development, social-emotional learning, authentic family and community partnerships, and explicit naming of racist, ableist and isolating practices, that also lend themselves to inclusively serving students with disabilities.

Instead of cobbling together a patchwork of programs and partners that work in silos to “fix students,” community schools recognize the need to fundamentally “fix schools,” so that all students can succeed. This means applying what we know both from generations of great teaching practice and the newer science on learning, to reorganize and strengthen the structures, resources, relationships and practices of schooling so that students experience:

  • Engaging, developmentally appropriate, differentiated, culturally and linguistically affirming opportunities to learn.
  • Safe and inclusive classrooms and schools.
  • Integrated supports and enrichment that prioritize trust and agency.
  • Active engagement of students and families as co-facilitators of learning.
  • A shared responsibility among all adults for the success and joy of all students on the school site, regardless of need or label.

There are things the state can do right now to leverage this historic opportunity to increase inclusivity and belonging for students with disabilities:

  • Include in the next grant request for applications a question(s) prompting schools to describe how they will be ensuring greater inclusion and belonging of students with disabilities in the context of inclusive whole school transformation.
  • Bring together both the State Technical Assistance Center and Regional Technical Assistance Centers for Community Schools with the array of experts funded within the state system of support to leverage the collective expertise toward implementing evidence-based inclusive school models and practices for supporting students with disabilities in community schools.
  • Incentivize school innovations and bright spots that show how students with disabilities are being authentically and successfully included with their peers without disabilities in community schools.

Schools with existing community schools grants can also do more to include students with disabilities:

  • Ensure dedicated collaboration and planning time for general education teachers, special education teachers, specialized staff and partners to co-create and co-own the education for all learners.
  • Cultivate collaborative partnerships among general and special educators, instructional aides, related service providers and community partners (e.g., expanded learning, family engagement) through schoolwide trainings and planning around instruction and inclusive school activities.
  • Create tools and resources that give general education teachers and other key staff the relevant and useful information they need, such as actionable “at a glance” individualized education program goals, accommodations and learning strategies.
  • Include county-operated special day classrooms, preschool programs and other community programs on school sites as partners in inclusive, whole-school transformation.
  • Ensure families of children with disabilities are proportionally represented on school teams.
  • Examine data in a way that recognizes the multiple facets of students, how these factors might impact their learning and how they might change over time, such as youth with disabilities who are also in foster care or are also English learners.
  • Embrace a schoolwide commitment to research-based teaching and learning practices such as Universal Design for Learning and inclusive practices for students with extensive support needs.

California’s community schools are part of a historic moment and an opportunity to prioritize intentional, inclusive belonging — relationship-centered, student-centered schools — as the basis for redesigning school for all students. We cannot look back in a decade with a “mea culpa” knowing that we may have left students with disabilities behind.

This commentary originally appeared in EdSource on May 1, 2023.

Hayin Kimner is the managing director of the CA Community Schools Learning Exchange, an organization that works with local education agencies, community partners and other youth- and family-serving organizations to strengthen community school strategy development and implementation.

Kristin Wright is the executive director of equity, prevention and intervention at the Sacramento County Office of Education. Wright previously served as the California state director of special education at the California Department of Education (CDE).