BELLINGHAM, Wash. — For years, students with disabilities spent their school days in classrooms separate from the rest of their peers. At Sehome High School, this barrier does not exist.

The University of Washington’s Haring Center for Inclusive Education’s three-year partnership with Sehome High School recently ended at the end of the 2022-23 school year. By the end of the partnership, Sehome developed a co-teaching model for their students through the guidance of the Haring Center.

The Haring Center is a research, service and training center at the UW that works to “ensure that children with disabilities receive the best foundation for a lifetime of learning and infinite possibilities,” according to their website. Sehome is one of 16 Inclusionary Practices Demonstration Sites in Washington that partnered with the Haring Center.

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The Haring Center has a grant from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction that funds its work with Sehome and the Inclusionary Practices Professional Development Project. The IPP works to build inclusive educational cultures and systems in Washington schools.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2022-23 data, more than 11% of students in Washington who qualify for special education spend less than 40% of their day in a general education classroom with the rest of their classmates. That is nearly 16,000 students.

Typically, students in special education spend their days being taught in classrooms that are isolated from the rest of the general education students. At Sehome High School, every student is considered a general education student.

“What Sehome has done is that they’ve taken that very seriously and they say, ‘You’re a basic (education) student. Now what do we need? What else do we need to provide you, what scaffolds do we need to put around you? What support do we need to provide so that you’re successful, both in general ed, and in learning the other things that you might need to learn because of your disability,'” said Ilene Schwartz, director of UW’s Haring Center.

Schwartz said that two teachers are assigned to classrooms, one that is skilled on the subject matter — such as history or math — and another who specializes in accessible learning. In classes where they do not have co-teachers, they often have paraeducators assigned to support the specific needs of students as well as support the entire class.

When students with disabilities were in different classrooms, the special educator would not only have to provide accessible learning but also have knowledge in the content matter.

“But that partnership, that co-teaching is what makes both the content available and the strategies that I as a special needs learner or a learner with special needs may need to make it successful,” she said.

The Haring Center worked with Sonia Cole, principal of Sehome High School, to find strategies that create an inclusive learning environment for all students. Through trial and error, Sehome adopted techniques to achieve this goal so that students with disabilities can work alongside the rest of their peers and have the opportunity to gain social skills and make new friends.

“The UW Haring Center provided Sehome with professional development and access to a doctoral student focusing on inclusionary practices who supported our work and conducted site visits to provide feedback on our programming and help with next steps to provide high quality educational outcomes and services for all students, especially for students who qualify for special education services,” Cole said in an email to the Bellingham Herald.

Sehome has seven certified special education teachers. Professional development, training and support is also provided for all teachers at the school so they know how to make the curriculum accessible for all learners.

Demonstration tours at Sehome, and other Washington sites, have been given several times a year to educators interested in the Haring Center’s approach.

Visitors toured classrooms, talked with Sehome staff, and collaborated with each other to create action steps for making their own school and spaces more inclusive, Cole said.

“I think Sehome is a great example because they have such good cooperation across their team members and their leader, Sonia Cole, is an amazing instructor. She’s an amazing leader. She’s committed to making sure that every student in her building is successful and she works with her staff to make sure that they are,” Schwartz said.

Cole said all students at Sehome benefit from the co-teaching model as they are able to be peers and learn together.

“The more diversity there is in a space, the more all students are willing to show up as their authentic selves,” she said.

Changes for the 2023-24 school year

Cole said due to budget cuts and a reduction in teaching staff for the 2023-24 school year, they are planning for larger class sizes, even in their co-taught sections. They are also looking at having fewer paraeducators.

“We are looking to use classroom structures and routines where students support each other and work together rather than having more adults to support. We are also looking at which classes we are able to continue with the co-teaching model and which classes we will need to use different models to support,” she said.

Special education teachers at Sehome will be assigned a class period where they are supporting students on their caseload. They will also coach general education teachers to be able to meet the needs of students independently, rather than having an additional staff member present.

“We know that having all students in the general education setting for the greatest extent possible is the law and is also the right thing for all students,” Cole said. “We need to make it work for students and staff. So we adjust and continue to get creative with our available funding and resources to make it happen.”

Cole said she is thankful that the partnership pushed them to see that there is another way to do education that is bigger than just how schools have traditionally provided special education services.

“The Sehome staff have done an incredible job at taking on this challenge and being highly reflective and open to change. It has been fun to watch,” she said. “I feel thankful to be a part of this transformation and look forward to seeing the ripple effects on our Sehome community, the Bellingham Public Schools community and our larger community in public education.”

© 2023 The Bellingham Herald
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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