Systems-Level Inclusive Practices: Challenges and Solutions

Male speaker at podium

Over the past year, the Inclusive Schools Network has selected a range of topics to serve as a spotlight for each month’s newsletter.  These topics have typically reflected school or classroom level issues, including strategies for collaborative teachers, effective use of paraeducator services, instructional strategies that support inclusive practices and the important role of the principal.  This month, we are using a larger lens to focus on district-wide challenges, and solutions for implementing inclusive practices across entire school districts.

To address this topic, we interviewed two highly respected central office administrators who have responsibility for services for students with disabilities, Dr. Jane Rhyne of Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, North Carolina and Ms. Kim Wooden of the Clark County School District, Nevada. They were also chosen on the basis of their personal contributions and their districts’ long-term commitment to inclusive practices.

The following five questions guided our discussions:

1. What are the most important actions that central office leadership can take to initiate inclusive practices on a district-wide level?

Top Level Vision and Support

Both Dr. Rhyne and Ms. Wooden responded that strong support from the very top of the organization, including both the superintendent and the school board, is a necessity.  There must be “a shared philosophy and vision of inclusive education for all children.” (Wooden)  This shared district-wide philosophy and vision is critical because “you can’t do this school-by-school – it must be articulated from the top as a district-wide priority” (Rhyne).

Systematic Approach to Initiating Inclusive Schools

Each leader described the process used for initiating inclusive practices.  Dr. Rhyne described her process that began in 2000 with an evaluation of current inclusive practices conducted by Dr. Marilyn Friend, an internationally recognized authority on this topic and her graduate students, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  Surveys of all stakeholders were conducted, focus group sessions were convened, classrooms were visited, and data collected.

With this comprehensive evaluation as a backdrop, a strategic plan was developed and implemented.  This strategic plan was one of eight multi-year strategic priorities set that year for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district and carried with it significant leadership commitment.  Progress was reviewed each month by the Executive Staff, school teams were trained and principals were required members of this critical professional development effort.  As Jane Rhyne commented, “The first year we invited schools to apply.  You want your first efforts to be successful so you begin with those schools most interested in making the change.”  While volunteers were selected for this first year, every school in the district participated in professional development over the following years.  Kim Wooden described the Clark County School District process, “In the beginning, you must provide extensive professional development, a common language, and support in creating inclusive master schedules.”  The process followed by the Clark County School District for initiating inclusive schools was very similar to the design for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.  Teams from each school were trained over a series of years with every school represented over a three-year period.  Principals were also required members of the school team to be trained in special working sessions conducted specifically for them throughout the process.  In these informal sessions, principals were invited to share their successes and discuss their needs.

2. What is necessary at the district level to sustain inclusive practices over time?

Principal Accountability

While all levels of the district, from superintendent and board to individual teachers, must assume responsibility for promoting inclusive education, principals play a particularly important role.  For Clark County schools, the district operates within the framework of the Nevada Growth Model, designed by the 2009 Nevada Legislature to improve the measurement of student achievement.  This accountability model “measures how much a student improves in academic performance over time, rather than simply whether he or she passed a test.” (Nevada Department of Education) Kim Wooden cited the enthusiasm of CCSD principals to add a measure of individual school progress toward inclusive education into their district accountability system.  This action by the principals is viewed as a critical reason for the sustainability of inclusive practices in CCSD over time.   As Ms. Wooden says, “What central office does to support schools is provide professional development, on-site technical assistance, and discussion about individualized education programs (IEPs).  It is important for our leaders to engage in discussions at the school level about what is important to kids. The best people to have these conversations are the principals!

Laser-Like Focus

“First you have to remember you are never done!  We have maintained a laser-like focus on inclusive practices for 12 years.  You can’t take our eye off the goal,” Dr. Rhyne responded.

Continuous Professional Development

Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District provides continuous professional development as new people are added.  This is really important for principals, particularly new ones.

Ownership of All Students

“Principals must really embrace the idea of inclusion and feel ownership for all students in the school”.  Dr. Rhyne feels that since NCLB, principals have really begun to embrace their ideals.

Continuity of Central Staff

“Continuity of central staff is important – it’s all about consistency and continuous improvement.”   Dr. Rhyne has been in her position since 1995, an elusive goal for many central office leaders.   Cabinet level position for the leader of special education in a district is also viewed as a contributor of the success of their efforts for inclusion.  She states “special education is seen as an integral part of the whole district, not as a stepchild.  We often advance new ideas for the entire system.”

Adult-to-Adult Relationships and Problem Solving

Finally, Dr. Rhyne suggests, “It’s all about relationships among the adults”.  Her position is equal to that of the five Zone Superintendents in C-MSD.  The Zone Superintendents directly supervise and evaluate the principals in their designated area. When a concern arises, it is a simple matter for Dr. Rhyne to discuss and collaboratively solve any problem that regarding special education services and/or inclusive practices. In summary, laser-like focus, continuous professional development, continuity of key staff, and open and honest adult-to-adult relationships among district leaders are her top list of practices that sustain inclusion.  Four excellent points for maintaining and extending the forward movement toward inclusive school practices on a district-wide basis!

3. What qualities do effective leaders of inclusive schools need in order to be successful?

An effective leader must be innovative, according to CCSD’s Kim Wooden.  Leaders have to “be able to find the way to use resources to accomplish the goals of the district and the schools”.  She also warns “We have a tendency as leaders to create our own barriers.”  Ms. Wooden describes the typical trap of defining the ‘how’ of inclusion in a narrow way that may inadvertently limit some very creative and innovative ideas that emerge from schools.  If district leaders are too narrow in their interpretations, schools will not ignite their own creativity to find strategies that really fit the needs of their students.

This sentiment was also voiced by Dr. Rhyne, Effective leaders need “an all-inclusive way of thinking”.  The box that some schools place them in is one in which “inclusion is co-teaching.  It is a much more vast and complex philosophy and practice.”

4. What is your greatest challenge regarding inclusive practices in your district?

For CCSD, the challenge is keeping the momentum going.  CCSD has gone from simply being one of the largest school districts, to one of the largest school districts focused on high achievement for every student.   In Kim Wooden’s words, “You can’t just say you promote inclusion, you actually must DO it and make sure to keep the momentum. It has to be embraced as a philosophy and a practice that must be maintained.”

For Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools it is “turnover in staff, principals, assistant principals and teachers. It costs a lot of money to provide support and development.”  For Dr. Rhyne the challenge is “doing a better job of growing our people and keeping the best!”

5. Do you have a story or outcome that serves as personal validation of the efforts required to provide leadership for inclusive practices?

This was an excellent question to end each of the interviews and the answers from our experts will likely serve to validate your efforts.

Kim’s story was actually described briefly in response to the second question.  For Kim the fact that CCSD principals actually initiated the discussion by requesting to add inclusive practices as a measure of school success to their school performance framework was a key event.  Their action to add inclusive education status in their overall school ratings signaled the successful shift from district-driven change to school-based change and ownership of the practice.

Jane’s story is a bit different.  “I visited a middle school recently, observing a 7th grade English/Language Arts class.  The class was co-taught.  One teacher was sitting in a student desk off to the side of the classroom while the second teacher was very engaged in teaching an excellent lesson.  She had full command of the class and the subject.  I realized that the teacher sitting was a very pregnant general education teacher and that the teacher assuming the primary instructional responsibility was the special education teacher.  To add to the success of the moment, I also noticed that a student with an intellectual disability was actively engaged and participating in the lesson.  He was viewed as a member of the class, respected by his peers.”  In this story, Dr. Rhyne received validation of success at the adult level with regard to authentic collaboration and trust amongst the teachers and at the student level with regard to an equal and respected place among typical peers for a student who traditionally might have been relegated to the sidelines in the past.

The Inclusive Schools Network thanks both Kim Wooden and Jayne Rhyne for their outstanding contributions to this article and to their respective school districts for a broader understanding of the role of leadership at the district level.  In Jane’s words, “We have miles to go.”  Perhaps it is this characteristic of effective leaders that matters most and was articulated by both of our contributors – an attitude of continuous improvement and dissatisfaction with the status quo!

Dr. Jane Rhyne, Assistant Superintendent for Exceptional Children
Learn more about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Ms. Kim Wooden, Chief Student Services Officer
Learn more about Clark County School District

Dr. Marilyn Friend is Chairperson and Professor of Education in the Department of Specialized Education Services at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the author of many books, articles, and The Power of Two DVD series.  Dr. Friend can be reached at

The Inclusive Schools Network (ISN) is a web-based educational resource for families, schools and communities that promotes inclusive educational practices. The ISN Team works to encourage, embolden, and empower people to design and implement effective inclusive schools.

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