Eye on Education

Erin Studer: Let’s create schools where all children are welcome

Dr. Erin Studer
Dr. Erin Studer

In schools throughout the nation, including California, tremendous resources are spent each year dividing students into groups of varying levels of need and ability and then separating those students into discrete programs like gifted and special education. All of this is in a supposed attempt to meet the needs of all the students.

Yet, each year, data shows us that our schools do not prepare all students for life after high school and often fail to meet the needs of our most at-risk students. Separation does not seem to be the answer.

At CHIME Charter School in Los Angeles, a national model for inclusive education, we take a different approach.

Rather than segregating learners into different programs, we integrate all learners — typical, gifted and those with special needs — into the general education classroom and bring the supports, services and educators all together to one classroom to support the needs of all learners.

Our model is based on decades of research and 25 years of practice at CHIME Institute’s Early Education and preschool programs and later a charter school program for grades K-8. Our integrated approach helps all children develop the academic, social and ethical skills needed to be successful in school and life. Our research-validated approach has been hailed by the U.S. Department of Education as “a model for full inclusion and ... a blueprint locally and around the country.”

Our student outcomes bear out the efficacy of our model. As a school that has long exceeded the state API benchmark of 800 as well as being a statewide “Achieving” school on California’s “Similar Schools” ranking, we see the power and impact of our educational model on all the students we serve. Likewise, with a waitlist of hundreds of students who want to come to our school, we also see the parent and family demand for an inclusive model of education.

But our mission goes beyond just creating one excellent school. We want to spread the model and the research-based practices that guide our model to schools and districts throughout California and across the nation.

Our goal is to disseminate our practices broadly and help other educators implement inclusive practices so that thousands of children may realize the educational benefits of learning together with a broad diversity of peers. We want all children to benefit from the ethical school communities that develop when inclusive practices are implemented.

CHIME Institute has been visited by scores of schools from across the nation and worldwide during our 25 years of inclusive programs and our 15 years as a charter school.

Over the past three years, we have worked directly with 26 different schools to provide them with professional development training to help them implement aspects of our inclusive model.

These outreach efforts have ultimately led to the improvement of educational outcomes for hundreds and hundreds of students across the nation.

We are not alone in this effort. Schools like WISH Charter School in Westchester and Willard Middle School in Berkeley also are running exemplary, researched-based inclusion models. Other schools throughout the state also are making wonderful strides in promoting inclusive practices in their districts.

Despite the progress and impact that has been made there is still a great deal of work to be done and a compelling urgency for the work to be undertaken. Perhaps the most morally compelling aspect of our model is the way in which it provides access to the general education environment for children with special needs.

The truth is that students with moderate to severe special educational needs in California often spend the vast majority of their K-12 education learning only with other children with disabilities, never being allowed to learn alongside, or from, their typically developing peers.

In the most basic sense, how can we ever expect our children with special needs to “make up the gap” educationally when they are never in the presence of those peers who are able to accomplish expected academic skills?

Likewise how can we expect these students to develop typically expected language skills, behavior skills, vocational skills, academic skills and so on, if they never have the opportunity to see those same skills modeled and practiced by children who are typically developing or, better yet, gifted?

Federal law requires that opportunities for access to the least restrictive environment like general education be provided to the maximum extent possible to children with special needs, yet, that is rarely the reality for so many of our most vulnerable students who happen to have a disability.

In fact, every year in California, schools and districts spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal cases brought by parents of children with special needs in terms of access to the least restrictive environment.

At CHIME, our motto is: “Imagine a world in which all children are equally valued; a world where all children are seen as a gift.” It is a powerful mindset that guides our work every day. It compels us to ask important questions:

▪  What does it mean when a school sees the potential in every child?

▪ What does it mean when a school “meets all learners where they are” and helps them gain the knowledge and skills they need to be successful?

▪ What does it mean when a school insists on the value of every child being a part of the community as well as insists on children’s inherent right to be educated right beside his or her age-level peers?

The result of following these questions to their natural conclusions is that amazing school communities are created and astounding student outcomes are achieved.

And at CHIME, that is the work we try to do every day, and that is the work in which we invite our colleagues across California and the nation to engage — the creation of schools where all children are welcomed, the creation of schools where all children all get what they need, and the creation of schools where All means All.

Dr. Erin Studer of West Hills is the Executive Director of CHIME Institute’s Schwarzenegger Community School. He can be reached at erin.studer@chimeinstitute.org.