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Inclusive Urban Schools: The National Institute for Urban School Improvement

By Dianne Ferguson and Elisabeth Kozleski

Inclusion is happening throughout our country and around the world. Roughly half the students in special education spend at least 80% or more of their time in general education classrooms. Students with all types and degrees of disability increasingly receive their education in a general education classroom. But where a student lives is still the most salient factor in where they are placed for special education services. A student in Oregon, for example, is five times more likely to receive their education in a general education classroom than a student in New York state (McLeskey, Henry, & Hodges, 1998). One of the reasons for this difference is urban schools.

Urban schools and systems continue to serve more than 44% of the nation’s school-age population in fewer than 4% of the nation’s schools. Students attending urban schools are the most culturally and ethnically diverse in the country. Yet, many of the teachers in these schools lack the professional training and experience to teach students effectively, and urban children and youth continue to perform poorly on measures of learning that benchmark their performance against state and national standards. The focus of the National Institute for Urban School Improvement has been to facilitate change toward inclusive education for all students (Ferguson et al, 2001). We are happy to report that despite bleak situations in many urban schools, there are also many examples of success.


Sammy attends his neighborhood school in a predominantly Latino portion of his city. Sammy was born with spina bifida and has never been able to walk. His intellectual disabilities have made learning to speak and read very difficult. Now in fifth grade, Sammy uses his wheelchair to move from his home-room to the lunchroom, the gym, and the playground. A paraprofessional comes to remind him to attend a resource room tutorial session after lunch where he works on language skills for about an hour each day. Otherwise, Sammy’s peers work with him in his 5th grade class, where his teacher has organized her class into a series of learning centers that use problem-based learning to teach math, reading, science, and social studies.

Previously, Sammy’s teacher taught all 30 of her students from the front of the class. As more and more bilingual and English language learners joined class, she realized that she needed to provide more individualized attention. Through a series of teacher inquiry groups, she developed her center approach. Her district uses an individual reading inventory twice a year to chart student progress and improve curriculum alignment with the state standardized test. Data from these tests help her make sure that her learning center problems are focused on the skills that her students need to learn. Sammy’s successful participation in her class occurs partly because many students who need differentiated instruction created the context for his teacher to change how she teaches. In doing so, she expanded the ways that she could individualize instruction for students with many kinds of diversity. Sammy’s success is not only measured by the degree of involvement and participation that he achieves in her class but also by his performance on the alternative assessment that his state has instituted to ensure that Sammy too is making progress on the state’s learning standards for all students.

State Test Success

A large elementary school of nearly 1000 students in a rapidly growing urban community along the Mexico border learned last year that their student achievement on the state mandated tests earned them “exemplary” status. All but seven students with more significant disabilities who attend this school participated in the state tests. A rating of “exemplary” means that at least 90% of all students passed the state test in reading, writing, and math; the school has 1% or lower dropout rate and at least a 94% attendance rate across all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. This status was earned in part because of the school’s capacity to ensure that students with disabilities and students from different language and cultural communities achieved along with everyone else. Only 37 students have received special education labels, and about half of these receive their schooling full-time in general education classrooms. The others move to resource classrooms for a few hours per week with other labeled and nonlabeled students for additional instructional support. This school is able to achieve these kind of learning outcomes because they have worked together as a faculty to align the curriculum within and across grades, develop six-week assessments keyed to state standards and operate a “core team” that focuses on seeing students succeed by changing what happens in the classroom. If one idea doesn’t work or work well enough, the team tries another.

Reform From Within

Ongoing learning and teacher professional development is crucial for schools to improve instructional practices that are inclusive of diverse students. But there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that traditional forms of teacher professional development (workshops, conferences, university courses) do little to help teachers fundamentally reshape their instructional practice. There is also evidence that teacher practice changes most often when the schools in which they work focus on specific and particular practice issues and sustain teacher skill development over time and publicly (Elmore, 2002). One hallmark of inclusive educational practices is the use of universal design principles in planning curriculum and instruction. This kind of work requires attention to planning and assessing of student performance on a scale that many teachers are unprepared to do. The Institute’s work in one district helped central administration bring together a design team of teachers from several buildings to deliver a set of leadership academies that created a vision, a set of skills, and a process of inquiry for leadership teams in 10-12 buildings to work on for a sustained period of time. The Institute used information sets from the buildings to encourage them to innovate against their own data. This information helped track the number of poor readers, the number of students who were being referred to special education, the number of free and reduced lunch students who were being referred to special education and the number of students of color who were being referred to special education. Discussing these data against the degree to which they believed their instructional reforms were being implemented helped to fuel greater and greater consensus and focus on the strategies teachers were using to effect change in practice. You might say that both thinking in new ways about how to change practice and using information to see how close they were getting to their goals were synergistic. Changing practice needed information to fuel change.

These stories reflect real and fundamental changes that are happening in urban schools. The momentum is growing, but there is much still to be done.


Elmore, Richard F. (2002). Hard questions about practice. Educational Leadership, 59(8), 22-25.

Ferguson, D.L., Kozleski, E.B., & Smith, A. (2001). On transforming inclusive schools: A framework to guide fundamental change in urban schools. Denver, CO: National Institute for Urban School Improvement.

McLeskey, J., Henry, D., & Hodges, D. (1998). Inclusion: Where is it happening? An examination of data from Reports to Congress. Teaching Exceptional Children 31(1), 4-10.

Dianne Ferguson is Professor in the Division of Teaching and Learning, University of Missouri, St. Louis. She may be reached at 314/516-5983 or Elizabeth Kozleski is Associate Professor with the University of Colorado, Denver. She may be reached at 303/556-3990 or


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Vandercook, T., and York-Barr, J. (Eds.). (2003). Impact: Feature Issue on Revisiting Inclusive K-12 Education, 16(1) [online]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


The print design version (PDF, 580 K, 32 pp.) of this issue of Impact is also available for free, complete with the color layout and photographs. This version looks the most like the newsletter as it was printed.

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