Building an Inclusive Independent School
Inclusion is one of those (often overused) workplace and educational terms that carries a positive connotation. The concept, after all, aligns with notions of diversity, democracy, and equity. When we talk about inclusion in public education, we often refer to the opportunity, codified into law, to provide children with various disabilities success in a general education setting.
Serving a range and array of learners, including neurotypical learners, in a classroom setting should be a byproduct of this opportunity, but beneath the surface of our presumptions about equity lies an unease about the value of this kind of heterogeneity.
Public schools have no choice but to grapple with this issue of defining "the least restrictive" environment for struggling learners. But non-public schools by design are exclusive. They admit students (and families) according to parameters they define. Their “exclusivity” isn’t a synonym necessarily for elite in all cases. For instance, schools that specialize in students with verbal disabilities, ASD, and other learning or behavioral challenges are just as exclusive in their own way as are schools that only take neurotypical high-flyers.
So private schools that really want to be inclusive of all kinds of learning styles and learners face a dilemma: neither specialized in one sense nor elite in another, they are caught in the paradox of being exclusive and inclusive at the same time. In addition to the stimulating challenge of curriculum design and pedagogical suppleness, such schools face a marketing dilemma as well. Perhaps that is why, despite all our knowledge about differentiated instruction and learning styles, there are really very few private—especially independent—schools that manage to thread this needle.
In a lengthy career, I have worked in many kinds of schools. Several were exclusive in the classic “elite” sense: children groomed early to fly close to the sun. In these schools, children who learn differently, or who are wired atypically, either adapt by suppressing these differences or switch schools. For a teacher, these school were fun to teach in, as long as parents stayed on your side. Others, like the large International School where I once taught, were modeled after more traditional American public schools—the schools are inclusive but heavily tracked, schools within schools. The all-boys Charter School I helped to found was racially segregated but learner inclusive, by law. What the Charter model means by inclusion is worth a whole other discussion. I sent my child to several schools that managed children with high learning needs—either through pull out programs or through a specialized mission. None of these school types were fully inclusive in any real sense, nor were they designed to be.
Now that I lead a PreK-8 independent school whose founding mission and current iteration of that mission genuinely strives to honor that facet of diversity involving learning style, it is understandable, but disappointing, that so few other schools choose this path.
One has to answer hard questions posed primarily by families: What’s the value added of sending my academically ambitious and gifted child to a school with varied learners? What will happen if I send my atypically wired child to a school with all kinds of minds? At the end of the day, will the school be supple and skilled and consistent enough to construct these multiple pathways yet plant coherent milestones?
This is a joyous, demanding, and bumpy ride at times. You still have to be very clear about whom you exclude, whom you can’t serve, but also very clear about how curriculum is delivered— the pedagogical imperatives of a curriculum. This means good hiring and a schedule which allows freedom to breathe and flex; and a marketing program designed to make this aspect of diversity—the least talked about—a truly compelling argument for matriculants.
I am more convinced than ever, after a pandemic and in a world increasingly parsed into narrow communities of belief, that this kind of a school is essential. Such a school has to privilege social emotional education as much as mastery of a three-part essay or algebraic equation; such a school has to let go of standardized units and singular ways of realizing expectations, which does not, by the way, lower expectation or reject a scope and sequence; and such a school compels teachers to be at the top of their game.
The byproducts for children should not be underestimated, though they are not guaranteed.
Empathy, for one, in the context of exposure to multiple ways of helping each other solve problems. A more authentic taste of what happens in the real world as we measure our worth in the workplace. A recognition that intelligence comes in many forms that lead to achievement—all we have to do is look at big players in the tech and art and sports worlds to see that. And finally a kind of learner autonomy that comes out of the opportunity to take different paths to mastery, since schools with diverse learners, if successful, have to open up this kind of unique access, particularly for learners who blow through expectations quickly and are ready to forage for more knowledge.
At the end of the day, in Independent Schools, parents choose. My job is to show families how schools like ours can cultivate a more meaningful life, in addition to, and even beyond, a merely skilled or acceptable one. In the end, kids are telling us, in their often discordant voices, what they need from us and from each other. We need to listen.
Peter Herzberg has had an extensive career as a K though post secondary educator in teaching, leadership, and partnership building, in independent, public, and charter schools as well as community college. In this partnership and consulting work, he specializes in the innovation and design of curriculum, the building of more robust teaching cultures, media literacy, and cultivating student engagement. Prior to becoming Interim Head at Mead, where he served on the Board for many years, he worked in 7 different schools—more recently as the founder of the first all boys charter Elementary School, Boys Prep, in the Bronx, and prior to that Associate Head of the Brearley School in NY and Academic Dean at Greens Farms Academy. He is on the board of the educational nonprofit Change for Kids, was on the National Advisory Board of the News Literacy Project, and works on collective impact projects with DegreesNYC, a college-career readiness project. Peter also taught composition and writing at LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of NY, before moving to the Interim Head position at Mead. He has an M.A in literature from Middlebury College and an Ed.M from Columbia Teacher’s College as a Klingenstein Fellow.
"The Mead School has unique potential, in its intimate, lab-like structure, to model what PreK-8 progressive schools might do at their best. Mead has always led the way in this regard, but the current cultural climate makes its work once again urgently relevant. This potential, and its faculty’s thoughtful, loving approach to kids, is what makes this work special." - Peter Herzberg