Last spring, we applied for a grant from SET BC (Special Education Technology British Columbia) to increase our ability to support our diverse student population. The idea came from our observations and from a study one of our staff members wrote-up for her master’s degree. She identified that in order to take the next step in our evolution as a school, we needed to do a better job of inclusion and that using authentic inquiry was the best way to do this.
In June we were notified that we were one of six schools in British Columbia to win one of these pilot grants. Our teachers decided to start our school year with a learning retreat on Mt. Washington at the end of August. Several of our teachers met over the summer and planned professional development sessions connected to our work. We focused on developing our collaboration skills; increasing our knowledge and understanding of mental health; reviewing and extending our work with inquiry; Universal Design for Learning; and creating a common understanding and vision for inclusion as it impacts our school.
At this point, I should point out a little bit about our context. We are a middle school serving 373 students registered in grades 6 – 9. Based on reliable measures of demographics, we serve a very vulnerable population: based on our experiences, we also have a very caring and giving community. More than one-third of our students have Indigenous heritage, but most are from non-local nations. We are entering a 2 year build due to the need to upgrade seismically, so even though we increased our student population by 50 students this year, we are in 2/3 of the building space we had last year.
We also had a very high staff turnover, more than 40% of our staff left in June for a variety of reasons. When the school year started, our staff embraced the many challenges coming at them from our radically new work space (every teacher had to change rooms, and we couldn’t get into the building until the Friday before school started), to new systems, people, and goals. September was a whirlwind of scanning, focusing, learning, adjusting, and responding.
On October 2nd, the SET BC team arrived, and we released half of our staff in the morning and the other half in the afternoon in order to identify priorities for our focus on this project. Much of the work we did on our Learning Retreat was used to frame and inform our conversations. We identified 7 priority focus areas and inclusion goals for our attention:
- Address barriers to meaningful access, and embed sustainable inclusive practices;
- Collaboration and co-teaching with teachers, LSTs, counsellors, district staff, and support staff;
- Increase the frequency and efficiency of current methods of collaboration and expand on current methods;
- Teachers using planning frameworks that support UDL (Universal Design for Learning), and UDL strategies are embedded in all classes;
- Have supports available to all and removing all stigma around using them;
- Have flexible spaces that facilitate UDL principles, and multiple types of learning;
- Build upon the existing positive school culture with the creation of a school-wide positive behaviour support (PBS) system to provide common language and understanding around expectations.
In future posts I will comment on the different ways we have been working on these different foci, but for the purposes of this post I will continue to focus on our context.
In order to support our work in this area we have one learning support teacher who is a case manager for our students with designated learning needs, one learning support teacher who supports our low-incidence students with their learning needs as part of our Lifeskills Program, and one counsellor who is the case manager for our students with designated behaviour needs.
In September we augmented these supports by releasing one teacher to specifically support our teachers in developing their skills to meet increasingly diverse needs (.4 fte). We have a Teacher Librarian (.5 fte) to support this work and in early November we were able to hire another Teacher Librarian (.25 fte); we were also able to hire an Inquiry/Inclusion support teacher (.2 fte).
At this point we are trying to figure out how all these human resources can work in unison to support our learners. All our classes are splits. We have 8 divisions of 6/7 splits and 6 divisions of 8/9 splits. Each teacher has a partner with the same grade configuration: they have 150 minutes of shared prep each week and have their classrooms across from each other.
Our younger students stay with their homeroom teachers for the next grade level. Each pair of homeroom teachers is responsible for supporting student learning in the five core subject areas: we are all responsible for supporting Core Competency growth and development. Our 6/7 teachers have administered the DART (reading assessment) to all their students and we are using the FSA to help build class profiles. Next week, each teacher team will meet with one of our inclusion support teachers for ½ of the day to build their class profiles together. We have never done this before.
We also have given our staff a quick 5-question survey to assess their impressions of where we are in terms of core inclusive practices. The following week, our district and school Inclusion Team will meet with members of the provincial team to go through what we learned from our class profiles.
Our aim is to identify pressure points and opportunities to guide our work moving forward. Suffice it to say, this fall has been very busy and full of challenges. However, it is through the hard work and professionalism of our entire team that these challenges are being turned into opportunities for us to learn and to improve our abilities and practices to meet the needs of our very diverse learners.
This is invigorating, meaningful work.