Today host Lori Boll speaks with Tim Villegas who is the director of communications of MCIE or the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, a nonprofit that envisions a society where neighborhood schools welcome all learners and create the foundation for inclusive communities. He is the founder of Think Inclusive, MCIE’s blog and podcast. Tim and Lori speak about MCIE and their impact, discuss the three main things that stand in the way of schools becoming more inclusive, and discuss the importance of school leaders promoting inclusion to make it a school-wide initiative.
Tim Villegas is director of communications at MCIE, a nonprofit that envisions a society where neighborhood schools welcome all learners and create the foundation for inclusive communities. He is the founder of Think Inclusive, MCIE’s blog and podcast. Throughout his 16-year career as a special education teacher, Tim advocated for including students with significant disabilities in general education classrooms. He continues his work with MCIE to empower schools and districts to move toward inclusive practices for each and every learner.
Transcribed by Kanako Suwa
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Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hour of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour.
Hello, everyone. Today I speak with Tim Villegas, who’s the Director of Communications of MC IE or the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, which is a nonprofit that envisions a society where neighborhood schools welcome all learners and creates the foundation for inclusive communities. He’s the founder of think inclusive MC IES blog and podcast.
And while this is a US based organization, their message of inclusion is globally recognize. Today, Tim and I speak about MC IE and their impact, discuss the three main things that stand in the way of schools becoming more inclusive, and discuss the fact that for inclusion to happen, it must start at the top.So be sure to share this podcast with your school administrator. And now, on to the show. Well, hello, Tim and welcome to the podcast.
Tim: Hi, Lori. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Lori: Well, I’m super happy to have you here. I’m a fan of your podcast, Think Inclusive, and excited that you’ll be one of our speakers at our virtual conference coming up here in November.
Tim: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s gonna be great.
Lori: Yeah. So today we’ll be talking about inclusion. I mean, it’s why both of our organizations exist, your organization, MC IE. And so to start, what’s your definition of inclusion or inclusive education?
Tim: Sure. We typically explain it in four pillars or bullet points. I guess you can say inclusion is, it’s hard to define because usually you can think of it in a way that it’s a belief system and it’s also a practice. So sometimes there’s confusion in just the word and what it means. But really like if you’re implementing inclusive education, you typically already have the belief system that inclusion is important. And so where we start, when we’re defining inclusive education is placement. And what I mean by a placement is that learners with disabilities are included in the same spaces and classrooms as typically developing children and learners.
You know, there’s a lot of different places where, where we live and we move and we play right? There’s, there’s your home, There’s your place of worship. There’s where you go get your groceries, there’s, you know, where you go, you go to parks and you engage in the community. But school is one of the only places in in our world where it’s OK, quote unquote “to segregate”, right? And so in schools for some reason, it is acceptable. So placement and where learners are in a school environment is very important to us when we’re describing inclusion. So that’s number one is place.
The next three, I’ll just, I’ll clump together because I think they’re important, is membership, participation and learning. And that the here’s actually indicators that we have on our website. If you go to MCIE.org and go to our resources tab page, there are some indicators that you can download and that is largely driven by the work at the U from the University of New Hampshire, Doctor Cheryl Jerkin and Michael McShan, who have developed, developed the Beyond Access model.
So what do I mean by membership, participation in learning? Membership is really a sense of belonging So, when we are included in a classroom or a group, do we feel like we belong, do we feel like we’re a part of the community? Are we missed when we’re gone? Do we have lasting and authentic relationships and friendships? And that’s so important to everyone, not, not just learners with disabilities, but, but everyone, everyone should feel like, you know, they belong in community. And then participation – what are learners actually doing when they are in the class? Are they in a separate area just like, you know, an an island in the mainstream like, I think it was Michael G and Greco has a great cartoon that, that depicts this, where you have a classroom of, of learners, and in the very back you have a learner with disability and a paraprofessional and they’re probably doing something completely different. That they, that doesn’t feel like it doesn’t seem like that learner is a member of that class and they’re not really participating in the life of that class. You know, does the learner have a classroom job like everybody else? Does, is the learner part of the routines and rituals of the classroom? So those are the kinds of things that we’re talking about with participation.
And then finally learning, you know, I like to tell this story about learning because my background is in a segregated special education classroom. So I taught for many years in the public schools and when I was just learning about inclusion and trying to, you know, figure it out, I thought that I was being inclusive because I was giving grade level access, access to grade level material and curriculum to learners. Now, I taught in a kindergarten through fifth grade class. So that’s six grade levels. So you tell me, Lori, how, how easy is it to give access to grade level standards across six grade levels in one school year?
Lori: Unbelievable. Wow.
Tim: So even though I did my best. And even though, you know, I, I remember this, you know, I’m remembering this, instance where, you know, we would get, we would get money sometimes from like the Parent Teacher Association or even sometimes from the, the federal, the state government to purchase materials. And so I went to, I think the local, you know, school box or, you know, local educational supply store and, I bought a whole bunch of, like, supplemental materials in history, like civil war and, you know, science materials and, you know, curriculum that, that could supplement what I was doing in the class. And I remember my principal was like, well, look at you Tim, you know, teaching about the civil war! Like, she was just so blown away that I would even think of doing that, you know, because the expectations are just, they’re just so low, they’re just so low. So.
Tim: Count to one, count to one with, count, with 1 to 1 correspondence and, you know, stuff like that and, and handwriting and all this stuff that we, you know, make these kids do over and over and over again. Well, I thought that I was giving, yeah, I mean, I was giving access but I thought I was being inclusive,, without really putting together that you can’t have an inclusive school. If you continue the practice of segregating students by disability. You just, it’s, it’s just not possible. They’re, they’re incongruent. You, you can’t have the, the, the same thing. And so once I realized that, and once I started to really understand that, you know, place membership, participation and learning all come together to form this larger vision of, of inclusion and inclusive education. That’s when I started really making a change in my own career to, you know, have an exit strategy, right?
Lori: Well, you mentioned your, your history a bit, but that you started in a, in a special ed classroom. Is that correct? And then how did, how did you get interested in the field in the first place?
Tim: Well, I wanted to be a counselor in college. So I got my degree in psychology and the last class I took for my degree was called the Psychology of the Exceptional Child. And I thought that I was gonna learn about gifted kids.
Lori: Oh, yes.
Tim: And I went to a private school, AAA private Christian school in Pasadena, California. And I also went to a private Christian Liberal Arts College in Southern California, at Azusa Pacific. And it was all wonderful and I, I have, you know, I had a great experience there but I had no exposure to special education or any sort of systematic way to support learners with disabilities. Now, looking back, I could see that there were learners with disabilities in my classes and in my school, but it wasn’t pointed out, it wasn’t a big thing, you know, people got extra things or, quote unquote “special things”. But it was just part of the, it was part of my education. It, it wasn’t anything separate. And so when I went at, for an assignment I went and I visited a, what we would now call like a resource classroom or a, you know, a math resource, middle school, classroom for, you know, probably seventh or eighth grade. I visited and I saw a small group of students and the teacher was in front of the classroom and he had a Hawaiian shirt on and, he was pretty chill. They worked on some math and they went to their next class after it. It just, it didn’t seem that much different to me than a regular class. I, I didn’t understand why there was a small group and so I didn’t really think about it. I just kind of tucked it away and, and went about my day and, you know, I completed my assignment and it wasn’t until I graduated and was looking for a job that, I started. I got a job as a behavior therapist for young children with autism. And that was really what got me interested in, supporting people with disabilities.
Now, I have a, I do have a cousin with some developmental disabilities and my brother in law, is autistic and he’s, he’s an adult now, lives, in California, which is where I’m from and come from , California. And so, you know, and I certainly have, friends with, different kinds of disabilities. So they’re, it, it’s always been a part of my life and, you know, but I did not set out to be a special education teacher or be involved with inclusive education. It just, it sort of, just sort of happened and as far as inclusion goes, when I got my first job and I started teaching, it was a classroom, it was in California. So we call them, we call them special day classes… I think I’m pretty sure they still call them that. It was a special day class for students with moderate to severe autism. And so it was 4 to 5, that those were the grades and it was a very small class. So four or five students. I had two paraprofessionals over the course of my, I think it was four years that I taught there and really they, they had some extensive support needs, you know, sensory behavior, communication. What I was taught in my teacher education program, which was, you know, to support inclusive education when I went out into the field and got a job that’s not how schools are run. They just, and not in my experience.
And so I was very much skeptical of the whole inclusion thing. I thought that, well, maybe these professors just don’t know my kids, they just, they just don’t know what it takes to really teach, you know, the kinds of kids that I have in my classroom. And so, in California, you can, you get a job as a teacher before you’re fully credentialed. So I had a, like a provisional certificate.vAnd so that’s how I got my first job. And so I was still going to school and my professor said, why don’t you create an inclusion plan for one of your students? And then this is an assignment and you have to, you have to follow up with a general education teacher and include the student for a, a portion of their day. And I was like, this ain’t gonna work, this is not gonna work… But I said, OK, you know, again, it’s an assignment.
So I, I followed the, the rubric, the, the, the plan and it was really to develop a plan around the student’s strengths. So what is the student really good at? And I think… I usually call the student Nathan. So let’s say Nathan, he was really great at cutting and he was really, he, he had a, a lot of sensory needs. So he would tear a paper and he would cut, he, he cut really well actually. And I believe he was in fifth grade. And so I collaborated with the fifth grade teacher and the, the assignment was to create a 3D topography map out of cardboard. And so the teacher said, well, look, we can have Nathan cut the cardboard and, you know, he could participate in the class and that’s something he’s good at. So I’m like, great, this is, this is awesome! So we go down there and he sits with his, you know, group and classmates and cuts and, you know, this was a, a learner that had some real significant sensory needs and had some trouble with, you know, challenging behavior. And there was, there was nothing, nothing happened, right? He just sat and cut and, and so at the end of the, it was like 40, 45 minutes and like, all right, Nathan, let’s go back, you know, and I just reflected and, and I thought, well, that was easy. Like all you had to do was plan, just had a plan for it. And so it was at that moment that I realized, oh, I could do this with everybody. I just, I just need to plan for it and plan for the success of the learner and not just put kids with and without disabilities together with no plan and hope for the best. That is an inclusion. Right?
Tim: Having a shadow teacher run around after a student all day long. Just nothing makes me more frustrated than that.
Lori: But the important question to follow back on is, did you ever wear a Hawaiian shirt?
Tim: Did I ever like that teacher that you went to? That’s a great question. I, I think I wore a Hawaiian shirt at least once.
Lori: It wasn’t your goal though?
Tim: No, no, no, no. My goal was to wear jeans. Just like every other teacher you’d have to wear. Oh, I don’t know about, I don’t know about you or anyone else listening. But, but the things you have to do just to wear jeans in a school, man.
Lori: Oh, I know you have to pay, gotta pay money has to be a Friday. Got to fundraise.
Tim: Oh yeah.
Lori: Ok. Well, let’s talk about MC IE which is the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education. Tell us how you support schools and districts in the US.
Tim: Sure. So we primarily do three things and then one bonus, one bonus item that I like to say. So, number one, we partner with schools on school transformation and that is typically a 3 to 5 year partnership where we work with an inclusive leadership development team that identifies certain schools in the district that we’re working with. We typically, that first year is just going over and having a, a shared understanding of what inclusive education really means. Kind of like what we just talked about the, you know, the placement, membership, participation and learning. We bring in lots of different resources. Not only the ones that we’ve created but ones, you know, videos and books and articles and perspectives from disabled people to just unpack all of the ableism that we really kind of have, you know, that we, we’re not even aware of. And so a lot of that first year is just culture building.
And then there’s a a a tool called the Quality Indicators for Inclusive Education, which is a self assessment tool that we go through with our partners. And in the tool, it identifies certain priority areas because every school is different, every school district is different. So typically, first you need everyone on board or at least the majority of the leadership on board with the mindset and then you go into the actual practices of what makes the school district inclusive. So that school transformation again, that’s 3 to 5 years sometimes longer.
The other thing that we do, the second thing we do is professional development and workshops. So we can customize training for any district at wherever they are on their inclusion journey. So sometimes that means we provide co teaching training. Sometimes that means it’s just about what is, what are inclusive schools. And sometimes it’s about roles and relationships of general and special education teachers, sometimes it’s paraprofessionals. So it really just depends on the, the needs of the district.
And then the third thing we do is learner, individual learner planning. So if this is typically for learners who have extensive support needs, but really, it’s for any school district and family where they’re having a difficult time knowing how to include a learner, you know, the mindset is there, they want to, but they just in practice aren’t sure. So we have some person centered planning tools that we provide and we facilitate and we end up at the end of that having an inclusion plan that’s designed for that learner.
And the final, the, the bonus thing is all of the dissemination that we do. So we have our podcast, Think Inclusive. I write at our blog, ThinkInclusive.us and anything that we create for social media, you know, going on other podcasts. So everything that we do that that’s outward facing in advocating for systems change in school districts, right?
Lori: And you’re particularly tailored to the US, correct?
Tim: Correct. We have done some professional learning for organizations and schools outside the US. But, but for now, you know, at least the partnerships that we, that we provide are are with US based schools, right?
Lori: Yeah, makes sense. And your name is Maryland, but I understand you are in multiple states, correct?
Tim: So MC IE has been around since the late eighties and we’ve been doing this work for a long time. And when we first started, we were mostly grant funded by the Maryland State Department of Education. And over the last 10 or so years we’ve expanded our work to work in, in other school districts outside of Maryland. And currently we’re in Illinois, Virginia, Arkansas and Oklahoma. And that list is growing.
Lori: Great. That’s exciting.
Tim: Really exciting.
Lori: Well, I watched a, we, we, excuse me, a webinar that you did today and you and your counterpart?
Tim: Was it Debbie?
Tim: Doctor Carolyn Eglin?
Lori: Yeah, Doctor Carolyn Eglin. Sorry. So I watched that webinar today and you discuss three main reasons schools don’t include learners, include all learners or things that get in the way and those were fear, lack of skills and beliefs. And I’m curious how do you get started with inclusive practices in schools or districts when the three of these things are standing in the way?
Tim: Well, you know, my perspective has changed when I was a, a school teacher. When I was a classroom teacher, I thought that all I needed to do was include my students. So I had learners you know, like I said, in a self contained special day class in California. And, and when I was in Georgia and and it was, it was a classroom for students with profound, severe and profound intellectual disabilities is what they call it. So, all different kinds of names for it. But I thought, well, if I could just show my school that my learners, my kids belonged in general education and I could make it successful that would alleviate those fears, right? Alleviate and, and change belief systems at my school. And I, for the most part was, you know, somewhat successful at including my students. But that in, you know, in that part, in my particular school in, in Georgia, I was one of four special education classrooms and out of those four, did I see a dramatic increase of other educators including learners? No, I did not, I did not.
What it came down to was people would compliment and say “Tim is doing a great job at including his kids”, you know, and the families would be appreciative and they would say, “wow, Tim, thank, thank you so much for advocating for my, you know, for my child”, which was great and I, and I loved it and I, I wouldn’t change it, but that did not change the culture of the school in a significant way. I, I think that it did in, in some respects and I think that the school was probably you know, they, it, they moved it, we moved farther along than if I had done nothing.
But what I found was the learners when they went, the late, late, they left elementary school and went to middle school. Once they got to middle school, it was like starting from zero, starting from, you know, square one. And so my point in saying that is that we really need to start at leadership.
Tim: And a lot of times inclusion gets put on families because they’re the ones advocating for it and teachers because they’re, they’re the ones that are that day to day trying to make it work but really that’s where we should be leaning on our principals and general education administrators. So, you know, associate superintendents of, you know, curriculum and learning or, you know, directors of teaching and learning, even, even all the way up to the superintendent because inclusion is not a special education initiative. It’s, it’s for all learners, it’s for everyone. And so when inclusive practices are advocated by the special education department or by special education, you know, special educators, it ends up being framed as a special education thing, right? And so, you can, you know, you know, we talked about fears, skills and beliefs. You know, the fears come from not knowing, not knowing, what, what you don’t know, you know, and the skills if you’re just coming, if you’re just trying to implement inclusive practices from the special education lens, you know, just in sheer numbers, there are more general education teachers in school districts than there are special education teachers.
So even if you had 100% of special educators on board, you’re still in the minority. What we need to do is equip and build the capacity of general education teachers to teach all learners. And that’s where that skills come that comes in and beliefs. You know, we need to frame it and convince other people that inclusion isn’t, is important. In, in my perspective, it’s, it’s about sharing stories, it’s about sharing success stories and then also stories of, you know, of growth. You know, I I, I try to embrace my, I try to embrace the way that I felt before and share the growth that I’ve made because I think that a lot of people maybe are, are where I was. I don’t know if I said that grammatically correct, but people maybe have an idea that inclusion is the right thing, but it’s not until you hear someone’s story and how they move through their journey that they can sometimes see themselves in that journey.
Lori: Yeah. And I think it’s also important, you did in your webinar, you shared research and test scores and how they improved for the people with the disabilities in the classroom and also for their, their peers. And I thought that was really an important point for people to understand, you know, that it doesn’t impact the learning of the other students in a negative way. It actually impacts them in a positive manner.
Tim: So, yeah, it’s like we have the same brain when it comes to, starting with the top. It has to start with admin and they have to, they have to take it on and they have to share that belief and make it a district wide or schoolwide belief and help support all their teachers in the growth of, in that area. So, yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s gonna be a long process. But, yeah, but those that have done it ultimate success.
Lori: Right. Yeah.
Tim: And, you know, there’s no, there’s nothing about what we’re doing in the US that isn’t, that doesn’t apply to any school.
Lori: Mhm. Exactly.
Tim: Because it’s really, it’s, I mean, when you get down to it, yes, there are best practices.
Tim: of teaching. But ultimately it’s about the mindset of, of school leaders and the ones that have the power to make change and that is universally, it doesn’t matter what school you’re at. You could be at a private school, you could be at an international school. You could be at a school in Canada. You could be at a school in Mexico. You can be a school in, in China. It doesn’t matter. It has to come from the top and so there’s nothing about these reflective practices that really,, you know, that it only works in, in the US.
Lori: Yeah, it’s not US centric, it’s worldwide.
Lori: Agree. Yeah. So here’s a big question for you. I was really impressed today when, when you both stated that inclusion is a civil right? So how, how do we shift society’s thinking about that? You have that Tim?
Tim: Yeah, we’re just gonna solve this right here right here right now.
Lori: Well, I think we need to, I think this is myself included.
Tim: We need to be better at, at sharing success stories, you know, like for instance, Doctor Carolyn Eglin, who’s our CEO, she was the associate superintendent in Cecil County Public Schools. And they started this work in Cecil County in the early 2000’s. Now, back in the early 2000’s, they had center based programs which, you know, is just another name for segregated and self contained disability specific classrooms and it took them about 10 years to dismantle it 10 years.
Lori: OK, yeah.
Tim: Yeah. And that was the MC IE was involved with that system’s change process. And so it takes a long time. Now sometimes it doesn’t take that long. But I think that the point is is that they started, right. And so, and and now, you know, Carolyn is, is you know, our leader, our, our CEO but I was able to just last fall. So actually this, this past school year in I think it was, was it September. I went up and visited Cecil County and I was able to tour the schools and talk to school leaders and, you know, so they had been, they’ve been doing this work since, you know, for, for 20 years essentially. And I asked, I said, do you know how unique you, you are like in the grand scheme of all school districts? The fact that you, you know, don’t have any disability specific specific programs. You create your master schedule with, you know, learners with disabilities in mind and you are not congregating them in one particular class, but you are, you’ve naturally distributed them across, you know, grade levels and you have, you know, a robust way to support learners with, you know, mental health needs and, you know, all these things that are markers for inclusive schools. And I said, do you realize how unique that is? And they’re like, this is just who we are, you know, and it’s funny how much they don’t think about what’s happening in other places.
Lori: It’s just their culture, right?
Tim: So it’s just their culture.
Lori: Right. Exactly.
Tim: Exactly. And what the other thing that I felt was interesting about Cecil County was that the school leaders were where people or, you know, were students in Cecil County. So what they ended up doing is that they went, they went through their program, they went through their school system, graduated, went and got their education degrees and came back to work in, in the school district that they grew up in. And, I just, just how powerful is that, you know, that you’ve created a culture of belonging that’s so strong that, you don’t want to move, you know, people flock to come back.
Lori: I love that.
Tim: Right. Exactly.
Tim: So, I think we need to do a better job of, of telling those stories and, and collecting them and, and sharing them because I, I think that when people hear stories, that is way more compelling to, to change their mind than if I give them the research.
Lori: Well, that’s what we hope to do at our upcoming conference. We’re gonna be amplifying the voices of inclusion and you’re part of that, Tim. So thank you in advance and I think that’s all we have time for today. So, thank you. Thank you so much for joining us and have a great day.
It was my pleasure. Thank you.
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