What Is An Inclusive School?

Adapted from remarks made by Andrew Lefkowits

Raising Inclusive Kids Workshop with Dr. Jennifer Harvey

Montview Presbyterian Church – April 14, 2018


We have six amazing elementary schools in our neighborhood- two charters – Roots and Odyssey, and 4 district run schools – Smith, Hallett, Stedman, and PHE. There are amazing kids at each of those schools, and incredible teachers, staff and administrators working hard everyday to give those kids the tools they need to thrive in a fast changing world.

As we have engaged in this topic over the past 9 months, we have had many discussions both internally and externally, and we have realized a few things:

For starters, it’s clear that every parent wants the best education for their children, and we know that every child can thrive, if given the right tools.  We have also found that the definition of a “good” education is not the same for everyone. However, one thing we have found to be nearly universal, is that all parents want their kids to feel welcomed, respected, and valued as members of their school community.  I’m reminded of a quote from Eugene Garcia, a professor at ASU. He says that all kids arrive at school with a little suitcase full of their life experiences, language and culture. Some schools ask kids to leave their suitcases at the door, but great schools say, “bring those suitcases in, open them up and let’s see what you have so we can all learn from you.”  That’s what I think of, when I think of a truly inclusive school. Students in inclusive schools benefit socially, emotionally, and also academically, because they are able to be present in the school, and their unique gifts are celebrated. Of course, the entire school community also benefits by being able to draw on the assets that every child and every family brings to a school.  

For a child to truly be present – to feel comfortable opening their little suitcase, they need to feel safe, they need to feel respected, they need to feel valued. It’s hard to feel those things if you’re hungry , stressed or scared. This means that giving kids an environment that nurtures them requires different resources depending on the kid. My kids are white and financially secure.  Our society is setup to accommodate their suitcases pretty much anywhere they want to take them. They go into a school expecting that they will be able to bring their little suitcases with them, and to be invited to share whatever is in them.

A child coming from the non-dominant culture, from trauma, worried about their home life, maybe having missed a meal or two requires greater investment and greater understanding to be able to feel present in a school – to be able to feel safe opening their suitcase. That investment is worth making, not just because it’s the equitable thing to do, but also because the entire school, and the entire community benefits by those kids being able to share their assets. But our educational system is not designed to make those investments.  

While I think our school system is significantly less racist than it has been in the past, it is not sufficiently anti-racist, and as I’ve learned from reading Dr. Harvey’s book and spending the past few days with her, there is a difference.  It is not enough to simply not be racist, we all need to be actively anti-racist. Actively cultivating inclusive spaces, is hard work, and it’s not something we universally train our teachers or school leaders to do. And yet, without doing it, it’s hard to imagine ever equitably serving all of our kids.  

The places where this doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen as well as it should, are almost never the result of bad intentions – public school teachers are incredible people, who deeply care for their kids.  However, so often they are not given the training, the time, or the resources to meaningfully engage in this type of work. Now, while there are many systemic issues that need to be addressed, I believe that school culture starts with parents, and that parents, equipped with better skills to actively cultivate inclusive spaces, can lead by example in school communities, and can more effectively advocate for those types of schools.