What do we want the world to look like? This question should guide us when we make decisions about our schools and educational system. Schools model the broader society for our students so we must actively consider what world we are creating in the future with the schools we have today. This a guiding principle for me and my works as a school leader and I think we can boil just about all of our decisions down to this idea.
When it comes to school exclusionary practices, whether academically or for disciplinary reasons I turn to broader societal exclusionary practices. The unemployment gap between people with and without disabilities was most recently measured at 42% (Disability and Employment Status Report for the United States, 2012). In 2012, the disability rate for non-institutionalized US citizens was 12% (Disability and Employment Status Report for the United States, 2012). The rate for incarcerated people was 37% (She & Stapelton, 2006). The parade of statistics could go on and on. However, it is clear that we under-employ and over-incarcerate people with disability which is to say that people who look and act differently from us get excluded from the workplace and shut away out of sight. Looking at our schools we can see the same thing happening where we educate nearly 60% of students with disabilities outside of their regular classrooms for greater than 80% of the school day (“Fast Facts”, 2012).
This is not the world I want to live in. The world I want to live in embraces all community members. Translated to school this means that everyone is welcome and everyone gets what they need. This is to say that when a student needs to be removed from a regular classroom to receive extra help, that’s done. But first we build a strong community of learners who see themselves as more alike than different. And when someone violates a rule, gets into a fight, damages property or some other similar behavior code violation, she is not excluded from the community. Rather, we bring the community closer together to work on the issue together. The assertion frequently attributed to Gandhi holds true, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”.
Further, I want a world of intellectually curious and emotionally empathetic people who invent amazing new devices, write beautiful books and music and take care of each other. If we have schools that emphasize rote memorization, test-taking, compliance and uniformity it won’t be difficult to get to a world we all want to live in, it will be impossible. Like the adage says, “You can’t get there from here.”
But we can get there. Right here in Oregon we have rigorous, inclusive work being done with The Right Brain Initiative which weaves the arts into core curriculum in K-8 classrooms. We have Restorative Justice in schools which seeks to end inequitable and exclusionary discipline practices by strengthening school communities and offering an alternative to suspension and expulsion. We have a great many dual-language immersion programs that bring together speakers of different languages into the same class (rather than pulling these groups apart). We have a robust positive behavior and supports network that is changing school discipline for the better. These plus our own work in individual schools can create an educational experience that demonstrates for students what we value in education and in the world.
As school leaders we have to be rooted in the work on the ground and also feel compelled to dream big. My dream is that our schools will be places our children love because they feel safe, challenged and excited to be there; our teachers will be doing work they value in an environment conducive to both creativity and rigor; our parents and community members will be actively engaged in the life of the school. I envision schools that are building a better world for all of us. These are lofty goals but education is not for the small-minded. It’s for those of us with a commitment to the students who come through the door everyday as well as to children and grandchildren of those students. In order to meet this commitment we have to unapologetically dream big.
Disability and Employment Status Report for the United States, (2012). Retrieved from http://www.disabilitystatistics.org/reports/2012/English/HTML/report2012.cfm?fips=2000000&html_year=2012&subButton=Get+HTML#emp
She, P., & Stapelton, D. (2006). A Review of Disability Data for the Institutional Population. Retrieved from Cornell University Institute for Policy Research website: http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1205&context=edicollect