Attitudes and Beliefs About Disabilities
A suburban Philadelphia district discovers where the drive for inclusive practices for students begins and ends
/School Administrator, January 2020

Assistant Superintendent Jenna Rufo (right) at “Mix It Up at Lunch” Day at Inglewood Elementary School in Lansdale, Pa., part of a campaign encouraging students to question and cross social boundaries.
Nearly 20 years ago at the start of my teaching career, I recall excitedly telling a colleague about the progress of Shanna, a student with autism who began participating in a general education science class. I shared that Shanna, who was 10, correctly answered a question about a geological formation called moraine.

“Moraine?” scoffed my fellow teacher. “What does Shanna need to know about moraine for anyway?”

As I digested this comment, questions swirled in my head for the rest of the day. What does anyone need to know moraine for? Why do students like Shanna need to prove that they can derive benefit from the curriculum when others are not held to that same standard? Do we really believe in the popular phrase, “all students can learn,” or is that statement an empty platitude?

One Constant Challenge
Throughout my career in education, I have been part of many conversations similar to the one of almost two decades ago. Yet whether I was a first-year teacher, a policy specialist or an administrator leading systemwide change (my current role), I’ve experienced one constant that stands as the greatest challenge in implementing inclusive education in our schools: personal beliefs.

I have heard many reasons why inclusion of students with disabilities does not work. Some of the most common refrains: lack of financial resources, limited time for staff collaboration, insufficient training, poor professional development. I don’t seek to minimize the importance of these components — all are critical. However, resources can be committed and strategies can be taught. Belief systems are less malleable.

In the North Penn School District, a district of roughly 13,000 students in suburban Philadelphia, we started taking a critical look at improving our special education services in 2014. Six years later, special education has been transformed from a system of primarily self-contained classrooms to a more inclusive service delivery model.

Believe It to Lead It
Our administrative team meetings in North Penn were vital at the inception of our inclusion journey. To lead inclusive education, we needed a shared understanding and vision. This evolved over time through examining our data, participating in professional development such as online learning webinars from Harvard University and engaging in book studies such as The School Leaders Our Children Deserve by George Theoharis.

The most valuable experience, though, was the dialogue that arose from these activities.

During one powerful exchange, we realized that the arguments voiced for separating students with disabilities from their peers bore striking resemblance to those made decades ago as a rationale for racial segregation. If we were not comfortable justifying separate systems of education based on race, why would we do so based on disability?

After confronting our own beliefs, North Penn’s administrators were better prepared to engage in honest conversations with staff. In one instance, an elementary special education teacher very respectfully approached an administrator and told her he just wasn’t sure inclusion would work for his students.

The administrator shared classroom data warranting a different strategy and the classroom supports she would provide. However, it was a much more honest dialogue that made a difference. “I need to challenge your thinking,” she stated candidly. “I want you to try.”

The teacher agreed to put forth his best efforts. At the end of his first year co-teaching, he approached the special education supervisor and said, “This is where [the students] should have been all along.”

Students Don’t Need to Leave to Learn

Students at Hatfield Elementary School in the North Penn School District share their understanding of “normal” during a character education lesson.

Decades of research have found that students with disabilities perform better when educated alongside their nondisabled peers. These benefits extend to post-school outcomes such as higher rates of participation in postsecondary schooling, employment and independent living. Yet only 62 percent of special education students in the United States spend the majority of their day in general education classrooms.

One widely held belief that reinforces our current practices is that students with disabilities require separate programs to “get what they need.” This traditional special education model is based on the idea that students leave the classroom, receive specialized instruction and come back when their deficiencies have been remediated.

However, this is rarely the case. More often, students miss valuable instruction and move further and further away from the general curriculum, making their return less likely.

To address this phenomenon, our administrative team in North Penn restructured the intervention time available through our response to intervention framework. This was an obvious place to deliver targeted supports. Further, these supports were available to all students. Organizing the RTI time more flexibly helped to debunk the myth that the only place for intervention was a special education classroom.

Using data to tell our story was another vital step in making the case for an inclusive service delivery model. It became hard to argue that students were getting what they needed in separate programming when their performance was subpar. Our special education data revealed that the achievement scores for students with disabilities were flat or declining and our rates of inclusion fell short of the state’s targets.

Some schools in the district began implementing inclusive supports more quickly than others. This resulted in staggered implementation, allowing us to compare the data of students educated in general education versus similar students in self-contained classes. The results were startling. The scores of those included in general education were markedly higher.

Our data provided a compelling counter-argument that students with disabilities were not getting what they needed in the current system. We had to overhaul our instructional approach to give students the quality education they deserved — a frank and sincere admission.

All Means All
The same data, however, often were unavailable for students with significant disabilities who demonstrated their knowledge through different means. This made the rationale for increasing their time in general education challenging to understand for some. A pervasive belief that existed both in North Penn and at large is that the general education curriculum holds little value for students with complex disabilities.

As leaders, we needed to shift the culture around our purpose for educating students with the most intense needs. Rather than narrowly focusing our efforts on preparing them for predetermined outcomes based upon what we thought they could do, we should provide them with access to a rich curriculum and allow them to rise to the occasion.

Yet the work of meaningfully including students with significant disabilities was challenging. We realized the need for a different approach and reshaped the roles of multiple special education teachers to serve in the capacity of inclusion facilitators.

A key responsibility of the inclusion facilitators is creating curricular modifications. By determining the most essential elements of the curriculum and intentionally developing access points to lessons ahead of time, they facilitated more meaningful experiences for students with complex challenges. Inclusion facilitators also were powerful agents for change who engaged in on-the-spot dialogue and brainstorming with their colleagues.

North Penn High School students participate in a unified bocce practice where students with and without disabilities compete together.
The academic progress of students with significant disabilities was a powerful motivator for some staff but did not speak to others in the same way. In addition to emphasizing academics, our leadership team had to highlight the sense of belonging that our students and their families were experiencing for the first time.

This took many forms. It was tears of joy from the mother of a medically fragile student who never dreamed her daughter would be able to attend school with her neighbors. It was the sleepover party attended by a student who used a device to communicate. It was the participation of a non-verbal high schooler in the spring concert.

Students without disabilities reaped the benefits as well. A high school student recently reflected on her friendship with a disabled peer, stating, “I can just be myself when I’m around him. … He accepts me.” Separating students based on labels not only harms those with disabilities, it cheats nondisabled students out of valuable friendships and experiences as well.

Blueprint for the Future
Since refining our special education service delivery model, students with disabilities in the North Penn schools have experienced increased growth in their performance on state and local assessments. Additionally, more than 80 percent of our students with disabilities now spend the majority of their day in general education.

While the conversation has largely shifted among staff from “Why are we doing inclusion?” to “How do we best do this?” plenty of work remains.

One persistent challenge is deepening the understanding that special education is a service, not a place. Services are generally portable, and we seek to bring supports to students whenever possible. Schedules must be developed strategically to do so. While we have grown in our ability to create strong schedules of supports, determining how to best assign limited resources is challenging.

Some of the most pressing issues we face at the moment involve supporting the mental health and behavioral needs of students. These concerns are not unique to students receiving special education. The next frontier will be to create a stronger alignment between general and special education to address emotional and behavioral challenges.

Leadership for Every Student
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has been around since 1975, yet our special education practices remain largely unchanged. If 45 years of legislation hasn’t shifted our practice, what will? Leadership. Without a firm administrative commitment, systems may revert quickly back to the prior model — which is comfortable for adults but does not produce results for students.

Numerous structural and logistical changes are involved in implementing inclusive programming. However, those efforts will fall flat if the attitudes and belief systems underlying a traditional approach to special education are not addressed first.

As leaders, we must reflect on how our special education practices are deeply rooted in culture, longstanding practices and personal philosophies. Sharing and shifting beliefs proves a much more powerful lever for change than any external mandate. It is also much harder work. Our students are worth it. Every. Single. One.

JENNA MANCINI RUFO is assistant superintendent in the North Penn School District in Lansdale, Pa. Twitter: @JennaMRufo

Additional Resources
» 30 Days to the Co-Taught Classroom by Julie Causton and Paula Kluth (Mill City Press, 2016) is a resource for co-teachers to develop competencies and habits, understand roles and improve planning and collaboration skills.

» The School Leaders Our Children Deserve by George Theoharis (Teachers College Press, 2009) draws on the experiences of successful public school principals committed to advancing equity and social justice through inclusion.

» “Five Moore Minutes” is a series of five-minute podcasts by Shelley Moore, a Vancouver, B.C.-based educator with practical ideas for inclusion.

» is a website providing information and resources on universal design for learning.

» is a website with practical information on addressing challenging behaviors in the classroom through positive behavior interventions and supports.