Haring Center

August 31, 2021

Reopening Inclusive and Equitable K-5 Schools: Reflections from the 2021 Summer Inclusion Institute

Sunlight streams through a tree's branches in summer.

“I am always looking to continue my learning around the idea of inclusion — trying to define what that looks like and how I can be a part of fostering that in my school community,” says Andrea Bergan, a family support worker at John Rogers Elementary in Northeast Seattle.

Bergan was among more than 175 educators from across Washington state who attended the 2021 Summer Inclusion Institute held on June 22-24 and organized by the UW Haring Center for Inclusive Education. Delivered virtually, this free interactive conference brought educator teams together to discuss, demonstrate and dive into practices for creating inclusive and equitable communities as schools begin to reopen this fall. Mornings were spent in conference sessions led by specialists from the Haring Center while afternoons were reserved for guided planning time — where teams had the opportunity to develop action plans, review resources and create systems to support equitable and inclusive work.

Funds from a grant supporting an Inclusionary Practices Project spearheaded by Haring Center Project Director Cassie Martin allowed the center to provide free admission to the summer institute as well as a toolkit that was sent to all participants. Included in the toolkit were three books: Leading Equity-Based MTSS for All Students by Amy McCart and Dawn Miller; Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning by Andratesha Fitzgerald; and Flexible and Focused: Teaching Executive Functioning Skills to Individuals with Autism and Attention Disorders by Adel Najdowski.

“With support from the OSPI, we were able to gather educators from across the state who were interested in learning more about how to welcome their students back to schools by implementing equity-based inclusive practices,” says Dr. Ilene Schwartz, faculty director of the Haring Center. “Every activity — from our motivational keynote opening to the story slam at the end — provided educators with opportunities to learn about evidence-based instructional practices and strategies to build school communities that welcome and support all students, families and staff.”

“I’ve been making my way through the books from the toolkit, and I hope to use them to spur discussion with my colleagues,” shares Bergan. “I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to participate and receive these materials.”

A new approach to participation

Bergan attended the institute with two of her colleagues from John Rogers — a practice encouraged by the Haring Center.

“We wanted to focus on the importance of teaming and collaboration within inclusive and equitable practices and protect time for teams to develop plans based on conference sessions. Inviting school teams to attend, including general and special education teachers, social workers, administrators, and district leaders and creating space for planning will help schools and districts implement these practices,” says Dr. Ariane Gauvreau, senior director for Professional Development and Training at the Haring Center. “It takes participation from as many people as possible at all levels of teaching and administration to effect change.”

Undeterred by pandemic conditions, Haring Center staff embraced the opportunity to reach more people through a virtual institute.

“Teams and teachers that may not been able to attend an in-person conference at the Haring Center due to cost and travel were able to participate — and that’s a silver lining that has enabled us to connect with more educators across the state,” says Dr. Gauvreau. “We are honored that so many teachers started their summer breaks with us.”

In coming years, the summer institute may continue to be offered virtually because of this ability to reach a wider audience and encourage participation from across the state. Connecting with educator teams from different districts — and being able to share experiences and co-develop best practices — was invaluable for participants like Bergan, who strives to meet students and families where they are.

Through her work at John Rogers, Bergan supports student success by advocating for family engagement in schools. Intentionally seeking student and parent input is just one way that she does this. Bergan engages families through home visits and community events, and the coordinated care that she provides ranges from one-on-one academic support to social emotional wellness and support around attendance. She also connects students and families with school district and community resources that address basic needs such as food, clothing and financial assistance as well as culturally appropriate resources.

This kind of holistic, coordinated care — an approach that addresses the whole student — is intended to counter systemic barriers that adversely impact students. Indeed, the Family Support Team at John Rogers centers the work of SPS’s Seattle Excellence and Black Excellence initiatives that focus on African American boys and other students furthest from educational justice. These initiatives emphasize that this work isn’t about changing students but rather about changing broken systems in public education.

This work begins by listening to families.

“I have a unique role in the school which is not driven by straight data, numbers or formulas,” explains Bergan. “Instead, it’s about building relationships, listening and trying to understand. The importance of storytelling and really listening to others’ stories is the only way we can foster inclusion and build community.”

“Unfortunately, this isn’t how our education system is set up so it can be very difficult to keep that focus and to encourage that focus in the day-to-day school setting,” she adds.

Storytelling as advocacy

As a powerful storyteller and parent advocate active in the special needs community, Bethany Moffi was the perfect choice to keynote and close the institute. A fortuitous meeting between Moffi and Haring Center Director of Applied Research Kathleen Meeker at the 2019 Division for Early Childhood Conference clenched it. There, Dr. Meeker heard Moffi speak about her journey as a parent and what it means to dream big with families, and recommended her for any speaking events at the Haring Center.

“Bethany’s expertise is storytelling, and she uses that superpower in service of advocacy,” says Dr. Schwartz. “Her keynote at our summer institute inspired attendees to think deeply about the stories we’re telling as we strive to change harmful structures in education and beyond.”

“Bethany’s presentation set the stage perfectly for the entire institute,” echoes Bergan. “Her reminder that we lose sight of the individual child when focused on ‘data-driven information’ hit home with me.”

Moffi’s keynote and story slam session demonstrated how storytelling and advocacy are always intertwined. She invited participants to jot down notes and share their reflections on surviving a very difficult year, which proved to be an emotional experience for some. This exercise also spurred thoughtful reflection about how students and families can tell their stories to people who have decision-making power to expand inclusionary practices that benefit everyone.

“Inclusion is not a special education term or a way of operating a classroom. Instead, it is about educators making adjustments and making learning accessible to every student. It is centering equity and relationships,” says Bergan.

“There were so many takeaways from this training and one of the ideas that has really stuck with me is the idea that inclusion is a social justice issue,” she adds.

“As a white woman, I was reminded that I have ‘gatekeeping’ status and that my norms are not ‘the norms.’ It’s about learning from students and their families about what success looks like to them and what they need to be successful. It’s knowing that we don’t hold the answers but that we can find some of the answers together,” reflects Bergan. “I am starting the school year with these two themes in the forefront of my mind as I continue to work with families and students during an unprecedented time.”