Fife High School receives national award for fostering inclusion to support students with disabilities
The noise at Fife High School’s gymnasium this week was so loud that you had to yell in your neighbor’s ear just to be heard.
The student body gathered to cheer on their basketball team. And no one cared who won or lost. That’s because Fife’s Unified Basketball team is made up of students with and without disabilities, and making the student athletes feel like they belonged on the court was more important than winning.
Gov. Jay Inslee congratulated Fife High School students and educators Wednesday during a school assembly for winning a national award, saying all Washington schools need to follow Fife’s lead and embrace the spirit of inclusivity. ESPN and Special Olympics chose Fife High School as one of the top five schools in the nation that uphold the 10 national standards for student inclusion. A “unified school” is a school where students with and without disabilities play together.
“We’re celebrating together because you’ve created a school environment that is accepting of all type of talents and identities,” Inslee said. “I’m incredibly proud of this school. In your younger years, you’re becoming the kind of people that some adults still strive to be in their older years. I hope you always look for ways take care of people around you because that’s what builds strong communities.”
Now a Top 5 National Banner Unified Champion School, much of Fife High School’s inclusion efforts initially came about because of Fife senior Zoie Breland. She wanted students with disabilities to participate in sports with the rest of Fife’s student athletes. So, Breland researched what it would take to bring the Unified Sports program to Fife during her eighth grade year. She started a club, organized meetings, encouraged students to pack the stands at these sporting events, and applied for a grant from the Special Olympics to help with the program funding.
Brandon Bakke, Fife High School principal, said Fife High School is committed to the pursuit of inclusivity.
“We are not perfect, but as Special Olympics puts it, we are ‘on the right track,’” Bakke said. “We’re committed to overcoming the fear of difference and replacing it with the power of inclusion. We are a school filled with students from all walks of life, from different cultures and ethnicities, who are committed to becoming a Fife family.”
Last week, the governor asked a panel of education experts at a Results Washington meeting how to help students with disabilities succeed. While their success depends on a variety of factors, two of the most important are having supportive mentors in and outside of school, and fostering an inclusive school community.
Aaron James, college student, attended the Results Washington with his mother, Sarah, who has been an educator for 36 years. Aaron will earn his associate degree this year and plans to one day earn his bachelor’s as well. He also works part-time at Walmart. As a kindergartner at Summitview Elementary School, he signed up for karate to build up his relationships and continues the activity as an adult. He graduated from high school where he was successful in all of his general education classes with the exception of math — he got support for that one.
What sets him apart from many of his peers is that he accomplished all of this with a learning disability. Aaron told the governor that he succeeded in part because of his support network from advocates like his mother and teachers.
“They set me on a path that would lead me to success,” Aaron said. “And I believe challenges make you stronger in the long run.”
Sarah said she worked with Aaron’s teachers to find out what his issues were. Early on, Sarah had him assessed with the special education department.
“No parent ever wants a child to have a disability,” Sarah said. “It was a process. Once Aaron had a diagnosis, we met with the team and got the appropriate services. For the most part, his teachers all the way through both in the general education program and special education program were fabulous.”
That support network aligns with a gentle push for more inclusive school communities.
“It takes leadership to have a teacher in the classroom to do this but the impact on these students is enormous,” Inslee said. “Creating this culture in a school setting will set up our children with healthy support systems and help them with long-term success.”
Fostering inclusion is about creating a sense of belonging and increasing student access to high-quality instruction for students with disabilities. Cynthia Hollimon, K-12 budget assistant to the governor, said an important part of inclusion is keeping all students together when possible.
“Research has shown that students with disabilities have better outcomes academically and social-emotionally when they are educated with their peers in the regular classroom to the greatest extent possible,” Hollimon said.
Inslee has made special education a priority during his administration. He has proposed increased funding for both the special education formula provided to schools and the safety net that provides specific accommodation to students. The Legislature increased the formula last session and provided funds for professional development to increase educators’ skills in inclusive instruction.
Washington’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, Amy Campbell, fosters inclusion in her work as a special education teacher at Helen Baller Elementary School in Camas. She focuses on student’s’ strengths instead of deficits and promotes meaningful, inclusive relationships among students with and without disabilities.
Glenna Gallo — assistant superintendent of Special Education Services at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction — said while not every student can thrive in a traditional classroom, we need to acknowledge that we can do better with inclusion efforts.
“We’re seeing students removed from traditional class each year,” Gallo said. “Those students have a right to be with their peers.”
Based on post-school survey results, many students with disabilities drop out of school as a result of issues such as mental health needs, bullying, and unmet academic and behavioral needs.
Kris Hirschmann, director of transition services at the Center for Change in Transition Services at Seattle University, said the center helps collect data on students one year after they leave school. Data shows that if a student with a disability stays in school and graduates (because of support networks, an inclusive environment, a mentoring adult, etc.), then the student is more likely to move to the next growth phase of adulthood. This may include being employed, going to college, living independently and being part of their community.
“Inclusion in general education is a huge predictor of success,” Hirschmann said.
Carrie Basas is the director at the Governor’s Office at the Education Ombuds, an agency that works to reduce the opportunity gap in the K-12 system. Basas said being inclusive means celebrating all of the identities students bring to the table. She experienced the opposite of this growing up in Maryland. While she didn’t experience a mental or learning disability, she was placed in a separate program until third grade for students with disabilities because of her physical disability. It’s one reason why she didn’t feel included during her early years of school.
“We say special needs but they are really human needs,” Basas said. “I was bussed to another town to attend school in a separate program just for students with disabilities of all kinds. There was little to no differentiation in instruction based on student needs. My neighborhood school was across the street from my house. I was able to attend that school in third grade after much advocacy from my parents.”
Basas said many people were never taught how to talk about disabilities or even encouraged to learn about how they affect student peers. This ignorance can lead to disability discrimination, or ableism, which can also discourage communities to include people with disabilities.
Scott McCallum, superintendent at the Washington State School for the Blind said factors such as accessibility and inclusivity cannot be an afterthought when working with students with disabilities. In fact, these two things can’t be understated because they ultimately benefit everyone when recognized.
“Often, the most disabling aspect of being blind or visually impaired are the low expectations and limitations placed on them by others,” he said during last week’s meeting, stating that he gets emotional about this topic.
Inslee wants to explore how to increase the educator workforce for students who are visually impaired or hard of hearing, and explore ways to offer more resources to help students with disabilities stay on track with their learning and graduate.
“We know the incredible things these students are capable of and getting this type of assistance from communities is life-changing,” Inslee said. “I appreciate everyone in our schools who work to foster an inclusive, supportive environment for these students.”