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Creating and Maintaining Effective Schools for All Children

As originally Published by Common Ground, September 1995

By: Dr. Edward Dragan
Tel: (609) 397-8989
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The first wave of inclusion has crashed upon the shores of our schools. Now, educators and parents are looking toward the horizon awaiting the next wave to see what it brings.

The term "inclusive education" does not exist in law, but the legislative intent of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), is that pupils be educated together. In establishing IDEA, congress clearly hoped to prevent the exclusion of pupils with disabilities from the benefits and services enjoyed by pupils who do not have disabilities.

The Federal Office of Special Education Programs requires that each public agency, make "a full continuum" of placements available to meet the needs of children with disabilities. Inclusion in the regular classroom is the least restrictive environment at one end of the continuum of required special education options.

In public schools in New Jersey, the range of placements, from inclusion in the regular classroom to residential placement, has been developed only to a limited degree. Schools have focused more on the development of placements that fall in the middle of the range, such as resource center programs and self-contained special education classes. Schools are not fully implementing IDEA. This is why there has recently been such a strong focus on the need to develop inclusive special education services within the context of the regular classroom - the missing part on the continuum. But the development of quality inclusive programs can not happen unless there is strong leadership in schools.

Effective Schools

Research completed in the mid 1980's indicates that the most important characteristics of effective schools are strong instructional leadership, a safe and orderly climate, school-wide emphasis on basic skills, high teacher expectations for student achievement, and continuous assessment of pupil progress. Effective schools are places where principals, teachers, students, and parents agree on the goals, methods, and content of schooling.

Good schools focus sharply on learning. The learning environment puts academics first. Principals and teachers believe they can make a difference in what students learn. Teachers and students, in schools thM encourage academic achievement, believe each student is capable of making significant academic progress.

Objective research and national policies on education have identified qualities of effective schools. Effective schools are places where:

  • pupils are educated together, those with disabilities and those without disabilities;
  • there is a full continuum of placements available to meet the needs of all pupils;
  • the building principal and special education administrator are primarily responsible for the education of all pupils;
  • high teacher expectations for student achievement and continuous assessment of pupil progress are emphasized;
  • principals make sure that their teachers have the necessary materials and assistance to be effective; and,
  • teachers and pupils believe each pupil is capable of making academic progress.

These characteristics must be in place in order to allow educators tn collaborate, to break down the walls between regular and special education, and to move schools forward toward in their ability to provide an appropriate education for all pupils, especially those with disabilities.


Primary to the reinforcement of effective schools is central office and principal collaboration. At the core of effective collaboration is the development and maintenance of a positive, trusting relationship among the collaborators. The administrators involved in a collaborative approach must operate as equals and not rely on titles or roles. Collaboration is a function of one's interpersonal behaviors. It is important not to focus on labels of pupils or educators and not to restrict either by role designation.

Collaboration, by definition, must be voluntary, and the individuals engaged in collaboration must retain the right to reject or accept the ideas discussed. Ideas can not be forced on principals as passive recipients of expert advice, rathel; principals must be the key individuals involved in the decision making for their building. The ultimate decision regarding accomodations to be made in a school building must rest with the principal. He or she must be responsible for the education of all students in the school. The challenge is to make the best: use of the expertise in schools without becoming involved with "turf issues" across roles.


If you ask anyone who has been involved in the inclusion of pupils with disabilities in regular classrooms what made it work, the most common response is "The principal made all the difference" or "without the support of the principal we would have never succeeded." The building principal is clearly one of the keys to developing a full continuum of alternative placement options for all pupils. What are critical aspects of successful programs?:

The existence of a clear philosophy: A clearly alticulated philosophy can guide educational programming provided in a school. It is a set of beliefs that provide the rational for a full range of programs and services for all students. Decisions, activities, and challenges occurring in the school are guided by this clear set of values about the education and inclusion of all children.

The presence of proactive, visible, and committed collaborative leadership: The building principal is the recognized instructional leader of the school who must assume leadership for all programs within the school building. The director of special education must work to support and reinforce the building principal in making decisions regarding the provision of a full range of services for all students.

Strong administrative support and collaboration with central office: While leadership and support from the building principal is clearly a prerequisite to successful schools, support from the district central office is critical. The administration must emphasize that providing a full array of placements for students with disabilities will not jeopardize other programs.

Parent involvement: The recognition and appreciation of parental involvement is clearly a factor in successful schools. Principals must encourage and plan for ample opportunity for parental involvement. Clear communication is the underlying obligation of the principal. It must be made clear to parents that beliefs guide programming within the school.

Planning and preparation: When developing a full continuum of placement options in a school, it is important to develop a structure that will support the implementation of programs.

Staff training is vital. Incentives, such as out-of-district specialized training may be indicated for some staff. The best way to prepare for program expansion is to meet with others who have already made successful changes in their school or classroom. Site visits to see innovative programming can be very helpful. On-site technical assistance is a very important part of the planning process. The building principal and director of special education can draw upon their colleagues in other districts and professional consultants to provide needed expertise. Realistic time lines and a committed time for planning are critical for the success of any program improvement project.

Collaboration and Teaming: Working to provide a full range of placement options for pupils with disabilities does not succeed in a vacuum. Teaching staff must share knowledge and discard the notion that students with disabilities are the exclusive responsibility of special educators. Therefore, the use of teams of regular and special educators collaborating to insure the successful inclusion of students is critical. The best way to model this is for the building principal and special education administrator to openly and actively plan together.

The Next Wave

The next wave swelling on the horizon and moving toward the education shoreline is the development of a collaborative attitude within schools that will encourage the development of a full continuum of placements for all students. The building principal must take the lead and the director of special services must provide the support to help move the school forward. This includes providing education about the legal requirements for a full continuum of placcmel1ts and how to structure schools in order to. move toward that goal. The director of special services must reinforce the concept of the ultimate responsibility of the building principal for the education of all students. Allowing the principle to take the lead, while providing information and support is the key. Roles will need to change, turf will have to be eliminated, and partnerships will have to be developed within the context of effective schools. Building principals and special education directors, special and regular education teachers and parents must join together in order to help each other swim as the second wave of special education reform reaches the shore.

Dr. Edward Dragan, provides education expert consultation for high-profile and complicated cases. As an educator and administrator, he has more than 35 years' experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent and director of special education. He also has served as a state department of education official.

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