Inclusive Culture Leads to Gains at Diverse Maryland School

Arne Duncan speaking to a Wilde Lake student

Secretary Duncan and Asst. Secretary Posny met a cross-section of the Wilde Lake High School community. (Official Department of Education Photo by Leslie Williams)

I had the opportunity on Tuesday to join Secretary Duncan and Alexa Posny, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, on a visit to Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Md. During the visit, Duncan and Posny observed classrooms and joined in a discussion with students, parents and community members about the importance of inclusion and closing the achievement gap for students with disabilities. The discussion was facilitated by Patty Daley, director of special education from the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) and James LeMon, principal at Wilde Lake.

During the discussion, Duncan and Posny probed students with a variety of questions aimed at drilling down to the reasons why students at the high school have been so successful, with a particular focus on the tremendous gains that Wilde Lake has made in the achievement measures of its special education students. Arne observed the faculty there is “absolutely committed to making sure that every student fulfills their academic and social potential.” When Alexa asked the students on the panel what makes special education students so successful at Wilde Lake, one student shared that the cultural stigma of being a special ed student had been eliminated and declared that it had been taken over by the notion that, “I am a student!” We know that Wilde Lake takes this belief very seriously, as more than 90 percent of their students spend more than 80 percent of the school day in a general education setting.

Through the discussion, we learned that the staff at Wilde Lake, led by Principal LeMon and supported by Patty Daley, has taken extraordinary measures to establish and promote a culture of acceptance and individualized instruction within their school programming. They have taken purposeful steps to engage families in a meaningful way, even including them as stakeholders in professional development activities. The school community has a strong belief that each individual is a stakeholder. They routinely analyze student data, make instructional decisions based upon this data, and identify targeted interventions aimed both at supporting students who are falling behind and enriching those who need an extra push. They use research-based instructional practices to maximize the learning for all of their students, citing the use of Classroom Focused Instructional Protocols (CFIP) as one example. This targeted, “laser” focus of both Wilde Lake and HCPSS, led by the district’s superintendent, Dr. Sydney Cousin, has enabled an effective mainstreaming environment for all students with disabilities, recognizing that they can and should succeed. They have developed an expectation that all students are self-advocates.

One teacher of sociology noted that the school community had taken calculated steps to get students to understand the uniqueness of learning. Once students understand that learning is not a standardized path that they each take, they are able to understand that they are all learners, and that they are all capable of achieving at high levels. Student after student, and parent after parent spoke about the community and culture as the driving force behind student success. One parent noted that her son, a student with autism, had become so successful due to the years of teachers “letting him do.” The staff here did not simply “tilt their heads” and smile at Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, but instead worked hard to develop a rigorous academic and social program for her son.

Alexa noted in her opening remarks that, “There is a greater tragedy than being labeled as a slow learner, and that is being treated like one.” Students with disabilities at Wilde Lake are not treated like slow learners, but are treated as equal partners in education with the same expectations for success as their peers. Truly, the mantra “I am a student!” is a pervasive part of the culture, and in that regard Wilde Lake should be a model for all schools across the country.

Greg Mullenholz attended the event as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education.