Better Together, In School and Life
Terri Vandercook, a longtime leader in the special education field who retired from the Institute on Community Integration in December, often repeats a phrase about working in the field of inclusive education for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.
The mantra, “Together, we’re better,” stems from Vandercook’s early work. As a special education teacher in Iowa and Texas in the early 1980s, she was troubled by seeing students with significant cognitive disabilities largely relegated to separate schools or separate classrooms within regular-curriculum schools.
“My heart just couldn’t take it,” Vandercook recalled. Watching students languish amid low expectations spurred her to earn a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Minnesota. Then followed a decades-long career at the Institute and at the University of St. Thomas, where she held a variety of roles, eventually becoming chair of the special education department. Early in her career at ICI, she was co-director of Together We’re Better: Inclusive School Communities in Minnesota…Partnerships for Systems Change, a statewide collaboration between ICI and the Minnesota Department of Education, along with many other grants and projects focused on special education.
In 2018, she returned to ICI and was assistant director of the TIES Center, a project that works with states, districts, and schools to support the movement of students with disabilities from less inclusive to more inclusive environments. TIES stands for increasing the time spent in general-education classrooms, instructional effectiveness, engagement with peers and with the general-education curriculum, and support at state and district levels for inclusive schools.
“I’ve been doing this work almost 50 years, and I’ve always had a passion for building inclusive communities, which is itself a concept that has evolved over time,” Vandercook said. “You might wonder if we really still need a center for this, but we do. Look at the data and you’ll see that the group of students with the most extensive support needs continues to be the least included, and that’s a detriment to every student, staff member, family member, and community member associated with that school. If we can create schools that truly include each and every student in a high-quality way, everyone will benefit.”
Vandercook’s energy and passion for the work and her contributions to building a team of leaders who will take the work of the TIES Center and move it forward are an incredible legacy, said ICI Director Amy Hewitt. In a tribute video created by colleagues within and outside of ICI, Hewitt shared a memory of an early conversation with Vandercook when Hewitt was interviewing to come to the Institute.
“Part of what drew me here was a conversation we had about your work in inclusive education and the life-course mission of ICI, which started a huge turn for me in my career,” Hewitt told Vandercook in the video. “We so appreciate everything you’ve done.”
Other tributes came from colleagues including Robert Bruininks, founder of ICI and a former University of Minnesota president.
“I still recall those early days, when we were building the foundational programs for ICI, and one of the most import foundational pillars was to develop a world-class set of programs and strategies to advance inclusive education in regular school settings. You were a big part of establishing that foundation that still retains a high profile today,” Bruininks said. “W.E.B. Du Bois said that of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental. You have fought for that right on behalf of the most vulnerable people of our society, and inspired generations of others to follow your lead. Job well done.”
Kristin Liu, director of the TIES Center, praised Vandercook’s talents in bringing together partners from multiple universities across the nation to create equity for students, particularly those with the most significant cognitive disabilities.
“Terri establishes trust and relationships, which allow her to ask difficult questions and partner with others to uproot complex barriers that stand in the way of creating inclusive educational environments,” Liu said. “She said in numerous meetings, ‘Together, we are better,’ and that means in and outside the classroom.”
Other praise and well-wishes came from TIES staff at partner institutions; staff from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and a student with disabilities and her parent in Washington State, a recipient of TIES intensive technical assistance; other collaborators in the field; colleagues at the National Center on Educational Outcomes, and ICI colleagues.
“Terri has a strong commitment to her North Star about what is good for all people, those with and without disabilities,” ICI’s Gail Ghere said. “It is a really powerful force that pulls people in to do amazing things together that benefit others.”
Accomplishing inclusive communities in the future is complex and challenging, and there’s no way that is going to happen without effective collaboration, Vandercook said.
“We need to think about inclusive service delivery, and by that, I mean teams of special and general education teachers figuring out the best ways to support all students as members of general education classroom communities. Special educators need to be on grade-level teams in a way that is not redundant and that allows them to collaborate and support one another as well as their grade-level colleagues in general education,” she said. “One example is to redistribute caseloads so that special educators work with students based on grade level instead of disability category and to provide time each week for special educators and related services staff to collaborate and support each other.”
She also recommends removing special education-only settings in schools. “Self-contained classrooms, resource rooms, relaxation spaces, and one-to-one teaching or therapy rooms could be converted to flexible learning spaces for any student and could be staffed by a combination of school staff, special and general educators, related service personnel, and trained volunteers,” she said. “You can’t create inclusive communities and scale them up without a diverse group of folks working together to make it happen.”
Although Vandercook’s career has focused on advocating these practices in support of students with the most extensive needs, she feels strongly that this approach will benefit all students.
“The authentic and system-wide collaboration required to create, sustain, and scale up these practices will benefit each student, whether their needs for additional support are related to academics, mental health, social connections, behavior, or a combination,” she said.