As International schools morph and change, the goal is our schools become better versions of what we’ve been before. Whether it is to provide a more cohesive and articulated curriculum, more rigorous vetting of our personnel for safety, or more purposefully designed and earth-friendly facilities, we are always changing and improving.
One area which is garnering a lot of attention right now is inclusivity. The idea that our schools can accept students with special needs isn’t new, but striving to do so, and even expanding the notion of what we can support, is a change.
Championing this idea is the Next Frontier Inclusion project led by Bill and Ochan Powell. This past week, I was with them at Hong Kong Academy to see an inclusive school in action: the journey, the celebrations, and the next steps for all of us trying to make this a reality. It was an interesting visit.
While, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, I wasn’t sure how I would feel around students with special needs. Having grown up in and always worked in international schools, I have limited exposure to students who are considered SEN (Special Education Needs) children. Of course, being on site at HKA and seeing those students playing, learning, and making friends eased my fear and opened my heart. While most of our schools will never be a true microcosm of society, we can and should modify our definition of diversity.
The big questions shared and chewed on with the group included:
- How do you do this? Staffing, marketing, facilities, etc.
- How do we go from where we are today, to where we want to be without compromising our already rigorous programs?
- What if our school communities (existing families) don’t want to do this?
Of course, for many of our schools, it will take time, planning and persistence to shift the culture and become more purposefully inclusive. Each school will face challenges based on its locale and clientele. However as often happens in our connected community of international school educators, once a few of us leap out, it will be easier (and become more important) for others to do the same. That is our strength as a global community.
Here is a first step I can share about the journey we are on at my school. It is a small shift that has produced big changes. It is a shift in language and mindset. It is replicable by any school wanting to become more inclusive.
We have recently changed our admissions stance from ‘no’ to ‘yes and…’ In the past, we would receive a file of a student with needs and work as an admissions team to explain all the reasons why we couldn’t admit the child. This process was designed to help the family understand why we were saying ‘No’.
Now, the admissions team (principal, resource teachers, counselor, admissions rep, possibly a classroom teacher) is tasked with presenting a scenario to our director based on ‘yes’. There is no longer a ‘no’ option at this meeting.
Instead, ‘yes, and…’ comes with the plan/proposal of what we would require to fully support the child in our school. There is no boundary to what we can propose: shadow teachers, more testing, modified curriculum, partial day, on-site therapy, etc. The proposals are not predicated on what we already do, but instead generated by what would be possible if there were no limits. The admission team’s job is to paint a picture which gets us to yes. From there, the director makes the final decision about whether or not we can get there.
This shift in mindset and emphasis has produced a few interesting results. First, we are much more likely to think out of the box when we are starting with a positive, can-do frame of mind. Secondly, the two or three cases we have reviewed in this vein have turned out to be doable, surprising us all, as in the past, we probably would have simply said ‘no’. And finally, the level of communication and ownership for the inclusion plan is spread out among those people who proposed an idea worth hearing.
Getting to yes is a motto we are beginning to live. While there are sure to be pitfalls, we are happy to be taking an active and conscious step toward inclusion.
What is your school doing to change the conversation?