“We have almost no models of what inclusive, high-performing middle-grades schools look like in practice,” Joan Lipsitz declared at the first advisory board meeting of EDC’s Beacons of Excellence project. Lipsitz and her colleagues on the National Middle-Grades Forum were already searching the country for middle schools that exemplified the Forum’s vision statement—schools that featured “academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and social equity.” Would some of those same schools also earn high marks for inclusive practices?
After conducting a national search for outstanding inclusive middle schools, Beacons staff selected three finalists to showcase and study (see list of schools below). The lessons they are learning from a close examination of these schools will provide other educators around the country with models of how inclusive reform principles can work in real-life settings.
Three Beacons of Excellence Schools
- Christopher Columbus Middle School in Union City, New Jersey
- Compton Drew Investigative Learning Center in St. Louis, Missouri
- Manatee Middle School in Naples, Florida
“Beacons schools do not have all the answers,” explains Catherine Morocco, director of the project. “But these are schools with a long-range vision of success for all students. They struggle daily with the challenges of bringing about positive change for all students … and they are showing progress in that struggle.”
While each school has its own vision of how to implement inclusive reform practices, Beacons researchers found that the schools share a set of common features. They are each located in high-poverty communities, yet each has created an environment that is safe and nurturing for children and families. The schools also promote a strong sense of academic purpose for all students. Finally, each has a distinctive school philosophy that defines and organizes its instructional efforts. “We came to recognize a ‘signature practice’ in each school that was emblematic of that school’s philosophy,” explains Morocco. “If you fully understand the signature practice, you understand the coherence of the school—how grouping, staffing, curriculum practices, and leadership roles all play a critical part in the students’ success.”
A Signature Practice
Take Manatee Middle School, for example. Though it is located in the resort city of Naples, Florida, Manatee’s student population does not resemble the vacationers who inhabit the beachfront condominiums. Instead, the school serves the children of the region’s full-time population, largely comprised of service industry and migrant farm workers. Nearly two-thirds of the students are black or Hispanic, and close to 90 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
At Manatee, collaborative teaching is the “signature practice” around which the other reform initiatives are built. The school is organized into several “families”—heterogeneous groups of 130 students, each lead by a team of teachers that includes a special educator. Working together, teacher teams design strategies for making important concepts accessible to all students by accommodating individual differences in background, culture, and learning style. In addition, the teacher teams “loop” with their students, spending two consecutive years together.
“Manatee has genuine co-teaching,” reports Cindy Aguilar, senior professional development associate for Beacons. “The special educators work hand-in-hand with the classroom teachers, instead of being their ‘handmaidens.’ One teacher begins the lesson and the other picks it right up when she sees a need to shift to a visual mode, or to check on students’ understanding. Seeing the seamless way they hand off the lesson to one another is like watching a dance. They work as equals.”
Working together over several years, special and general educators have developed an effective, schoolwide, inclusive approach to literacy instruction. “We use special education strategies with everyone to develop good writing skills,” explains Assistant Principal Lon Clay. “Teachers use visual tools like the circle/box/underline prompt, Venn diagrams, and web mapping to analyze and practice good writing. And we practice writing every day—not just in language arts, but in science, social studies, and math class.”
Clay credits the inclusive language instruction for the school’s strong showing in Florida Writes, the statewide literacy assessment. The number of students at Manatee who passed the essay exam rose from 76 percent in 1998 to 91 percent in 1999. Significantly, these figures reflect the performance of all students in the school, including those in special education. When broken out along ethnic lines, the data is even more promising, with black and Hispanic students making the greatest gains.
Teachers also worked together to develop a coordinated wellness curriculum that integrates lessons on physical, social, and emotional well-being. In addition, the school trains every sixth grader to be a peer mediator. The work of building a safe community has paid off at Manatee: Staff report a steady decline in the number and severity of behavioral problems at the school. And, in a survey of student attitudes conducted by Beacons researchers, nearly 100 percent of the student population said they believed their school was a safe place to be. They provided similar positive responses to questions about whether they feel they belong at the school and whether teachers care about them. Parents also responded positively to questions about school safety.
Manatee staff take a collaborative approach to the challenge of building family involvement. Several years ago, Clay and Principal Santo Pino began the process by taking a team of teachers out to the communities where their students live to hold parent focus groups. “We went to the neighborhoods and the migrant camps and said, ‘Here we are, this is what we’re about, come get to know us,’” explains Clay. “We stress this with the teachers, too—call parents, keep them informed.” To ensure that it is reaching all members of the community, the school provides simultaneous translation into Spanish and Haitian Creole at all parent meetings.
While Manatee and the other Beacons schools are putting to use many powerful teaching and learning strategies that benefit all students, Morocco emphasizes that the success of these schools is not due to any one particular list of practices. Instead, she explains, “the Beacons model shows how effective schools bring together a variety of reform practices with a safe climate, challenging curricula, strong family-school relationships, and strong leadership to realize a shared philosophy. In Beacons schools, all students know what the school stands for. Every day —even every crisis—provides the staff with opportunities to more fully realize that vision.”
Sharing The Success
Currently, the Beacons staff and their school partners are designing Web tours to share these and other lessons learned from the Manatee, Christopher Columbus, and Compton Drew schools. “We want visitors to come away from the Web tours saying, ‘Wow, if they can do it there, we can do it too,’” says Aguilar. Beacons staff will also disseminate lessons from these schools in the case studies, model curricula, and self-assessment tools they are developing for distribution through education organizations like the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative, the National Middle-Grades Forum, and the Council for Exceptional Children.
Originally published on June 1, 2000