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Inclusion at Birch Grove Elementary

By Lois Nordling

Birch Grove Elementary School is a culturally diverse school in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, with a population of 720 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. One-third of the students participate in the free or reduced lunch program. Approximately 10 percent of the students qualify for special education services, primarily through the Full-Service Special Education program. Full-service special education is a cross-categorical service delivery model in which special education teachers serve students with a wide range of disabilities. At Birch Grove, the students’ disabilities include learning disabilities, emotional-behavioral disabilities, developmental disabilities, and other health disabilities.

Implementation of the inclusion model at Birch Grove has evolved over time. The school hosts one of its district’s Cooperative Kindergarten classrooms where a general educator and a special educator licensed in early childhood education co-teach together all day. In addition, three full service special education teachers implement the current inclusion model to provide special education services for students in grades 1-6. As part of the model, they spend part of each day teaching in the general education classrooms. Their instructional roles and responsibilities vary and include teaching leveled reading, implementing an alternative reading curriculum with a group of 15 students, team-teaching whole group math lessons with the general education teacher, or teaching research skills to a small group. Having participated in the weekly planning meeting and being aware of the upcoming curriculum, the special educators can increase the skill and confidence level of students with disabilities by pre-teaching skills during small group sessions.

The system for assigning the special educators to grade levels is a significant element in the school’s inclusion model. In kindergarten, for example, a general educator and special educator co-teach together all day. In grades 1-6, each of the three special educators is assigned to two different grade levels – one primary and one intermediate grade. There are several benefits to this strategy. First, each special educator needs to learn only two grade-level curricula rather than several. Second, the schedules for the two assigned grade levels become the basis of the special education teacher’s daily schedule. Third, the classroom teachers in each grade work together to develop a schedule that is consistent and that allows special educators to be present in general education classrooms at high instructional need times. Most significantly, the special educators become part of the grade-level teams and establish the personal and professional relationships that are the core to a successful inclusion environment.

Teaching can be a “lonely” position. At Birch Grove, classroom teachers view the opportunities to plan with another professional and to watch another adult teach as ways to strengthen their own teaching. The special educator becomes a source of intervention ideas for other struggling learners. The special educator also becomes an advocate for the students and the classroom teacher when additional resources are needed, such as alternative curricular materials or additional assistance from a paraprofessional.

What is the role of the principal in an inclusive special education program, such as Birch Grove’s? Here are some ways principals can provide support:

Most importantly, the principal needs to support the efforts made by classroom teachers and special educators in creating different learning options for students. Meeting the learning needs of all students is a challenging responsibility for teachers. Educating students with a wide range of abilities and backgrounds in general education classrooms adds to this challenge. While an increasingly diverse student body creates new challenges for schools, it also creates new opportunities and enriched learning environments for both students and staff.

Lois Nordling is former Principal of Birch Grove Elementary School, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. She may be reached at 763/504-7601 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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