Inclusive classrooms open doors for learning

12/6/2016 | TACOMA, Washington

In an early morning algebra class at Stadium High School, students attempt to figure out the range of a graph. Nothing looks too unusual here—workbooks cover the tables, posters with algebraic equations dot the walls. But there’s a twist. 

Instead of one math teacher instructing the group, two teachers lead the class the entire hour. While one teacher explains a new concept, the other circles the classroom answering individual questions. Each teacher periodically speaks up to explain the math concept in slightly different ways.

​Stadium High School student Alyssa Luther worried about algebra, but
holds a high grade in the class, in part because of two teachers.
“An extra teacher is really, really helpful,” said Alyssa Luther, a freshman in the class. “If I don’t understand a new idea, I may understand it better if the other teacher says it in another way.”

Alyssa holds one of the highest grades in the class. Yet her success in algebra is far from guaranteed: Alyssa, like 12 percent of students in Tacoma Public Schools, qualifies as a special education student because of a learning disability. 

Tacoma Public Schools finds the best way to help many students with disabilities succeed involves placing them in classrooms with their peers without disabilities. In that setting—called an “inclusion classroom” —students learn from each other and often surpass expectations. 

Over the past two years, the district provided extra support for inclusion classes by adding two teachers to many of those classes. Like the algebra class at Stadium, co-taught courses cover the same curriculum at the same pace as in a traditional classroom, but with one special education and one general education instructor team-teaching the course. 

The number of co-taught classes increased from 23 classes at seven schools last year to 102 classrooms at 13 schools this year. The district set a goal to provide a co-taught class in math, science, language arts and social studies for every grade at all middle and high schools by 2020. 

“Keeping kids in the general education classroom is a real priority,” said Jonathan Bell, director of Student Services for middle and high schools. “It creates an acceptance and an awareness that helps all students and teachers work productively.” 

Co-teachers focus on giving all students—special education or not—confidence to ask questions and know they belong in class.

“They’re all learning, going beyond what they or their middle school teachers may have thought they were capable of. They’re in a situation where they believe they can learn, be themselves, and they don’t feel stupid because they do know the answers and we bring that out in them,” said Miles Fiala, one of the algebra co-teachers at Stadium. 

‘We’re not closing the door’ 
Alyssa’s parents first noticed her struggle in early elementary school. By second grade, she received a special education designation after she and her parents went through the evaluation process set up to identify students with disabilities. 

Alyssa processes information differently and particularly struggles with attention issues. In middle school, Alyssa ran into some roadblocks in her math class and didn’t feel comfortable asking questions, her mom Chrissy Luther said. But she flourishes in the co-taught class at Stadium. 

“She’s always been hard on herself. She kept saying, ‘I didn’t get it,’” Luther said. “I’ve seen huge improvement this year. Her self-esteem in math has improved a good 75 percent. That really helps with her confidence; she’s able to ask questions.” 

Fiala, one of Alyssa’s math teachers, says the co-teaching inclusion class succeeds because he and co-teacher Trish Maxwell both know the math curriculum extremely well. Before becoming a special education teacher, Fiala taught a general education math class for 30 years. 

Fiala and Maxwell agree to speak up whenever they have an idea that can help explain the math lesson differently—an approach that benefits both special education and general education students who also may need to hear an idea explained multiple ways before getting it.

“The class definitely gives the (special education) kids an equal playing field and gives them the opportunity to take more rigorous classes,” Maxwell said. “I run the class at the same pace. We’re not closing the door and saying ‘sorry, you have an IEP (Individual Education Program), you can’t take algebra or geometry.’ 

​Miles Fiala helps Alvina Borishkevich while co-teaching Algebra I
at Stadium High School.
​ ​​​​​​​​​​“For general education students, putting someone who thinks differently from you in your classroom provides you a great way to see strategies that you haven’t thought of before,” Maxwell said. “And if they need to teach what I’ve said to a partner because their tablemate needs a little more time to process, you’ve changed from just ‘listening and learning’ to ‘listening, learning and teaching it to someone else,’ which gives them long-term memory learning.”

Alyssa focuses on her workbook during class and asks a lot of questions when her teachers circle the room. She says she sometimes feels intimidated about asking questions with only one teacher in the classroom. 

“Some kids are a sponge, they soak everything up right away,” she said. “It’s harder for me to learn right away. I was scared of this class because I thought it would be hard…What I like about this class is both teachers play a really important role.” 

Alyssa hopes to enter a creative field such as costume or set design and expects to use math skills to take measurements and fulfill other parts of the job. She wants to keep taking harder math classes at Stadium so she can better prepare for life after high school. 

“I definitely want to be good at math. I really want to understand now, so college isn’t challenging with huge classes,” she said.