In 2003, Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) educated students with significant disabilities very differently than they do now.
At the time, they were known as a “center school district,” meaning students with significant disabilities were bussed away from their neighborhood schools to attend specialized schools. “There was never even an idea that a child with a significant disability would go to their neighborhood school,” said Carolyn Teigland, Assistant Superintendent of CCPS.
While students with learning disabilities and language impairment were more likely to go to their neighborhood school, they were still excluded from general education classrooms and taught in self-contained classrooms.
Percentages for students served in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) in the district were low, so Maryland’s Department of Education challenged Cecil County to do something about that problem. It was then that MCIE became a partner with CCPS to transition students back to their neighborhood schools and into classrooms with their age-appropriate peers.
“As soon as we started the work of transitioning students back, we saw the power of the impact. And it became my life’s work,” said Teigland.
“As soon as we started the work of transitioning students back, we saw the power of the impact. And it became my life’s work,” said Teigland. According to Teigland, she saw students from the center schools, where there were incredibly low expectations, flourish when they were with their age-appropriate peers.
Teigland described the work as challenging because they “had a major culture in the district that students with disabilities did not mix with their non-disabled peers.” She remembers sitting in Individualized Education Program meetings where administrators would scare families about returning to their neighborhood school. She also recounted that staff at the center schools were skeptical that any educator could educate students with significant disabilities as they could. As well as administrators telling her that they were “wasting time” of regular teachers by bringing in students with disabilities to be educated side by side with their non-disabled peers.
Educators were not the only ones who gave leaders like Teigland pushback. Families were also hesitant about the move toward inclusive education. Teigland would ask the families, “If not now, when? When is it that you are going to include your child as part of society? If you keep them in a secluded setting until they are 21, what happens afterward?”
Things didn’t start turning around until the district could point to some experience and success, as well as parent testimony. “By the time we shut down our first center elementary school, the momentum started to catch on,” Teigland remembered.
“When you have the level of support from experts, like those at MCIE, with boots on the ground, it is really hard for the staff at the school not to engage,” Teigland remarked.
Through this process, Teigland realized that there a very few reasons why you can’t successfully include students with significant disabilities, or any child for that matter if you are willing to staff and accommodate appropriately. She also described the support and training from MCIE as integral to their success.
“MCIE staff was potty training kids and crawling under bathroom stalls. When you have the level of support from experts, like those at MCIE, with boots on the ground, it is really hard for the staff at the school not to engage,” Teigland remarked.
For CCPS, the proof has been in the data. All their student achievement numbers rose throughout the inclusive programming process, including those with significant disabilities. And for 2020, Teigland noted that the graduation rate for students with disabilities is the highest it had ever been. “It has just continued to increase every single year, and it is one of the highest in the state,” she said. For the last ten years, CCPS’s LRE data shows inclusion rates of at least 90% of students with disabilities educated in general education 80% or more of their day. “Because when you include students with their age-appropriate peers, they learn more, achieve more, and are more engaged,” Teigland emphasized.
While CCPS has been on this journey of inclusion for close to two decades, their work is not finished. The work of MCIE and its partners continues across the state of Maryland, across the country, and the world.
For more information about inclusive systems change, visit MCIE.org.
Tim Villegas is the Director of Communications for the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education. He is also the founder of Think Inclusive, which is the blog, podcast, and social media handle of MCIE. He has 16 years of experience in public education as a teacher and district support specialist. His focus now is on how media and communications can promote inclusive education for all learners.