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Leading Social Change in Collaborative and Inclusive Practice: One Middle School's Journey

By Alice Udvari-Solner

Installing collaborative and inclusive practices has required significant social change in our nation’s schools. In many, the path to achieve inclusive education has paralleled other social justice and human rights movements. In schools where inclusive education has taken hold, individuals begin change by questioning existing models and replacing them with alternative visions that promote equity and opportunity for all students (Keyes & Udvari-Solner, in press).

This article features the actions of one middle school principal who has guided collaborative relationships among staff to create shared commitment to the membership and achievement of the school’s learners. His leadership decisions illustrate how a social movement can begin and be fostered in our learning organizations.

Kennedy Middle School (KMS) in Germantown, Wisconsin, serves 875 students in sixth through eighth grade. It is organized in a “house” structure, with three- to five-member teams typically staffing “houses.” When Steve Bold became principal in 1998, special education was characterized by categorical assignments and reliance on pull-out or self-contained services. Within five years, he put into motion a noncategorical service approach in which special educators were teamed with specific grade level houses. Special class spaces and the resource room were dismantled. Separate programming was minimized and replaced with team teaching or consultative support in general education. Access to individualized instruction now occurs for any student in an all-school learning center. At the heart of these changes was an administrator who envisioned special education as “a service not a place” and who sought a unified service system that would serve all students well.

In his book The Courage to Teach (1998), Parker Palmer offers a helpful framework for understanding the evolution of social movements and identifies four definable stages that occur to prompt change. Through the lens of this social movement framework some of the influential actions taken by the principal of KMS will be highlighted.

Stage 1: Living “Divided No More”

The momentum for a social movement begins when isolated individuals recognize a disjuncture between their own core beliefs and the institution’s prescribed conditions. People experience a spiritual division when they sense one imperative for their lives but outwardly accept one that is contradictory.

When differences in personal and institutional imperatives are irreconcilable, some individuals make a conscious decision to honor their core values and “live divided no more” (Palmer, 1998, p. 167). A movement takes shape when people, one by one, bring their personal actions into accord with their values around a social issue.

Steve Bold’s decision to live divided no more began when he was still a teacher in the Milwaukee Public Schools. Initially working alone, he invited a special educator to join him in the classroom to experiment in blurring the lines between general and special education. When Steve became principal at Kennedy he expressed his beliefs about the power of collaborative teaching. He lead faculty to re-examine the school’s mission statement, determining if it reflected people’s core beliefs about students, teaching, and learning. He challenged staff to question whether anything in the mission justified separateness. An imperative was written into their school plan to critically examine the alignment of current practices and articulated beliefs. By revealing and discussing outward incongruities, the next step of a social movement was set into motion, which was to create a community of congruence.

Stage 2: Communities of Congruence

In this stage, like-minded people gather in communities to support newly expressed beliefs and reinforce the integrity of individually-held values. Communities of congruence form to harbor new ideas, translate a movement’s vision into a common language, and experiment with novel models and skills.

The principal at Kennedy established structure for a community of congruence by forming an action research team whose charge was simply to study ways to meet the diverse needs of all students. Initially, the team was comprised of a parent, an administrator, and five teachers who represented special education, coordinated arts, and each grade level. In this group, like-minded people came together to discuss transformations in teaching and gather data about alternative service delivery models.

Within a year this group became permanently installed in Kennedy’s site-based decision-making. Renamed the Collaborative Resource Team, membership rotated, allowing staff to volunteer or be nominated by their colleagues or the principal based on expertise. This team consistently revisited the language of the mission to determine what should be occurring, collect evidence to show it was being done, and then determine what additional data from students, parents, and teachers were necessary to rationalize change.

In this think-tank, initial ideas were generated to realign special educators with grade level teams and houses, create an all-school learning center, allocate a half-time support person to work with-in the coordinated arts block, and examine achievement issues associated with gender. Revised staffing configurations resulted in a new collaborative instructional delivery model, and the next communities of congruence were built. Within these teams of general and special educators who came together daily to support a cross-categorical mix of students with disabilities, conversations on best educational practice had to be negotiated and converted into daily instruction. To encourage congruence building-wide, staff were asked to identify what they needed in order to achieve their new vision. In response, Steve arranged a multi-year plan to bring experts in the field of collaboration, differentiated instruction, and positive behavior approaches for on-site professional development. These school-wide gatherings offered a common language and tools for addressing student needs.

Stage 3: “Going Public” With Values

After individuals have garnered strength in communities of congruence it is essential that they bring their ideals into the public eye. Going public is vital because it allows the movement to be critiqued by the larger community. Unless the movement’s vision is expressed and tested in a larger arena, understanding and persuasion cannot be gained and the movement may stagnate among the same loyal supporters. In the case of creating an inclusive school culture, going public may mean that the small communities of congruence come forward in building-wide forums to face critics.

At least four vehicles to “go public” were part of Kennedy’s plan for change. First, during the action research phase, the planning group scheduled information sharing sessions with the district’s Director of Pupil Services, sought feedback from parents, and presented ideas to the local special education agency, Kennedy’s Building Leadership Team, and ultimately its entire faculty. Second, the Collaborative Resource Team by design had the responsibility to take ideas back to respective subject areas, grade levels, and coordinated arts staff for reactions and feedback. Third, before implementing new staffing configurations, visits were made to other school districts to communicate ideas, gather additional strategies, and check decisions. Fourth, after engaging in the new service model for one year, Steve enlisted a team of outside evaluators who observed and met with staff to assess the collaborative instructional delivery model. Recommendations and next steps for improvement were provided by these “critical friends” to create a cycle of renewal.

Stage 4: Alternative Rewards

In the final stage, the collective energies used to create the movement return to the institution to alter its logic. One of the inherent reasons movements begin is that the institution defines the reward system and therefore has significant control over people who are a part of it. Consequently, the movement must develop new rewards around activities that people value. Some of these rewards are natural outgrowths of participating in the movement itself and foster a renewed sense of integrity and higher level of social consciousness.

In KMS, as in most schools, time to teach well and engage in collaboration with sufficient monetary support were highly prized rewards. Greater shared planning time was achieved in several ways. The master schedule was reorganized to create a consistent planning block across subject area teachers and special educators at each grade level. To allow coordinated arts teachers to join their colleagues at this time, one time per month their classes are taught by Steve along with the superintendent, Director of Pupil Services, Director of Curriculum, and a hired floating substitute. In addition, Steve has reduced his monthly staff meetings to quarterly, returning unused time to teachers.

The principal routinely solicits staff about their monetary and professional development needs. In his yearly planning, he consistently reserves 10% of his operating budget for the purpose of addressing these needs. In addition to these tangible rewards of time and money, KMS staff expressed the intrinsic value of seeing student progress. In response, Steve makes concerted efforts to help staff see these gains by gathering and reviewing formal and informal student progress data. Staff are encouraged to share publicly their personal stories and breakthroughs. These reviews are communicated as celebrations that remind educators of their positive influence on learners.


The dramatic changes for students with and without disabilities achieved at KMS began with personal values that were translated into action. The journey of this school reinforces the need to create forums in which educators can perceive their work as part of a larger social reform. The dedication of time to articulate beliefs, consider multiple viewpoints, and celebrate successes is critical in supporting individuals to initiate change. The words of Parker Palmer (1998) provide both a closing for this article and a proposal to begin envisioning social change toward inclusive schools:

By understanding how movements work, we may discover that we are already actors in a movement for educational reform. We may discover that if one is on an inner journey, one is on the threshold of real power – the power of personal authenticity that, manifested in social movements, has driven real change in our own time (p. 167).


Keyes, M. & Udvari-Solner, A. (in press). The formation of a spiritually centered learning community: Congress elementary school. In D. Fisher (Ed). Inclusive urban schools: Lessons learned in big city schools. Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishers.

Palmer, P. (1998). Divided no more: Teaching from a heart of hope. In P. Parker. The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. pp. 163-183. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Note: Material by Parker Palmer adapted and used by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc., and may not be reproduced without permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Permissions Department, 201/748-6000 or

Alice Udvari-Solner is a faculty associate with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison. She may be reached at 608/263-4645 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


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