In Their Own Words: Creating a Culture of Inclusion

May. 20, 2019
Photo of Cara Shannon, Inclusion Coordinator at Maxwell Elementary, the author of this article.

By Cara Shannon, Inclusion Coordinator, Maxwell Elementary

Helping students feel included at school is one of the biggest factors for student success. This isn’t just my opinion; research shows that creating an inclusive environment increases academic achievement.

I’m the inclusion coordinator at Maxwell Elementary, which means I help the school figure out what students with disabilities need in order to actively be part of the classroom setting. I started this work in 2016, when the staff at Maxwell decided that all students, regardless of ability level, race, or background, would have access to a great education. This journey has not only resulted in a more welcoming environment for students and staff, but we have also seen the number of students with disabilities showing growth on state tests double. Students without disabilities saw growth, too.

We started by phasing out resource time and pull-out instruction for students with disabilities. We realized that wasn’t helping our students the way we thought it would. It made our students feel separate, isolated, othered — and they were missing out on grade-level instruction and time with their peers.

Now we use universal design for learning and co-teaching for all grade levels, which are ways to personalize learning in a way that works for all students. We started asking ourselves, “what do students need? What are their strengths? What strategies can we use to help students learn this information?”

We had a student who was identified as non-verbal, and we weren’t sure that was 100% true. So we asked about his strengths and we developed strategies. Over time, the student began to use more language. Now he is reading alongside other students and has been able to use language to interpret meaning from texts. He even makes observations about other students, like “she seems sad today.” The student went from being isolated to becoming part of our community. Students notice when he is absent, he has responsibilities in class and students genuinely enjoy his presence.

This is what inclusion does: it connects all of us. It transforms a student who may feel like an outsider into an integral part of our community. It allows students to engage with others who are different from them, preparing them to enter a world where they can bring our values of acceptance and respect to everyone they meet.

Don’t get me wrong — inclusion takes time. You have to think about every aspect of a school (planning, schedules, instruction, social-emotional work, culture) when you’re creating an inclusive school. You have to make sure all your teachers have the skills they need to help all students. You may have to rethink what your school looks like. We radically redefined roles and responsibilities, and discovered a whole new way to serve students.

When we ask ourselves – and our students – what is possible, we find a world of opportunity waiting.

Cara Shannon has worked in Denver Public Schools and Chicago Public Schools as a special education teacher, disability advocate, and inclusion coordinator. Superintendent Susana Cordova’s streamlined focus on Equity, Instructional Excellence and Collaborative Teamwork includes supporting the recommendations of the Special Education Task Force, which encourage DPS to create inclusive environments for all students. Learn more at