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Inclusive Learning: ‘Creating a Climate of Belonging’ for All Students

District 67 Inclusive Learning

Defining “inclusive learning” can get complicated. But Districts 67 and 115 take a straightforward approach.

“An inclusive learning environment encourages the affirmation, appreciation, and exploration of multiple identities and multiple perspectives,” said Jennifer Sterpin, District 115’s director of special education, and Kate Cavanaugh, District 67’s executive director of student services.

“Overall, it’s about creating a climate of belonging,” they added. “We want LFHS and District 67 to be places that ALL students and staff want to be, places where they feel a sense of belonging and know that they are valuable, contributing members of our schools.”

The Districts put that thinking into action in a variety of ways.

  • Both Districts use a natural proportions scheduling process, which ensures that all classrooms have children with disabilities or other needs in proportion to their presence in the general population. At the high school, the national proportions process has created heterogeneous classes in freshman biology, world history, and geography. In District 67 there are heterogeneous classes in reading and language arts from kindergarten through eighth grade.
  • Both Districts provide individual planning for students with more significant support needs such as when transitioning from preschool to kindergarten, fourth to fifth grade, eighth to ninth grade, and high school to transition services.
  • Both find ways to ensure that all students have access to clubs, activities, and athletics that interest them. At the high school, the level of such participation is at 90 percent.

In District 67, Mrs. Cavanaugh said, “the vision is to create an innovative learning community that educates without boundaries – where all students cultivate their minds, create enduring connections, and discover their passions.”

“We believe every child has an incredible capacity to learn,” she said, adding: “We embrace inclusive practices as a moral imperative for ALL students and faculty to feel valued, to feel a sense of belonging, to be an active participant in all spaces, and to achieve growth.”

The LFHS mission, said Dr. Sterpin, “is to inspire the passion to learn, the insight to know oneself, and the courage to make a difference. Our core values speak to the importance of maximizing the potential of all students and supporting and investing in our staff.”

Each year, she added, “we continue to reflect and engage in learning which drives our department and building goals at LFHS. For the past three years, inclusion has been a schoolwide goal as part of our instruction milestone.”

As collaborative professional learning teams continue to learn and reflect upon their teaching practices, she added, their ability to reach more students and improve student outcomes is evident. An inclusive learning environment is both a proactive and a responsive one, Dr. Sterpin said.

Ultimately, both Dr. Sterpin and Mrs. Cavanaugh said, inclusive learning is a process for all students, “with a focus on giving each child what they need while reducing equity gaps in opportunities or outcomes.”

Kate Cavanaugh

Kate Cavanaugh, District 67 Executive Director of Student Services

Jenny Sterpin

Dr. Jenny Sterpin, District 115 Director of Special Education