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Public Schools Have an Inclusive Leadership Problem

Updated: Nov 3, 2022


Hilda Bernier, packing her son Emilio’s backpack for pre - school. © Forget Me Not/Cinema Libre Studio
Hilda Bernier, packing her son Emilio’s backpack for pre - school. © Forget Me Not/Cinema Libre Studio

In my former life, I was a special education program specialist for the 25th largest school district in the United States. And one aspect of my job was to observe learners with disabilities in our "special needs pre-k" programs and talk with the school team to see what they were thinking about educational placements as they transitioned into Kindergarten. I would spend some time in the "special" class, hang out and interact with the student, and then ask some questions to the teacher.


Usually, if the learner was already in a segregated special education classroom, the teacher said they would "best be served in a small group setting for students who had similar needs." But on the rare occasion that they wanted them to be included in a general education classroom, it was framed as if the learner didn't belong in a disability specific program.


"Oh, Johnny? He doesn't belong in an autism or intellectual disabilities classroom. He's too smart. He can keep up."


Which assumes that some kids do belong in a disability specific program. But if some learners do and some don't, how do you decide who is in and who is out?


I was already an advocate for inclusive practices at the time, believing all kids belonged in general education. But there was some nuance in my position. Blame it on self preservation, but if the learner was transitioning to a school or classroom where I knew the educators believed in inclusion and would properly support them when they got there, I would lobby for the learner to be included. But, if the learner was going to a school or classroom where they would likely be pushed to a self-contained classroom, I didn't spend as much energy advocating.


There were frankly too many students to advocate for, and I was one of only a handful willing to speak up for inclusive practices. I was exhausted, and eventually, I left the school system. But not without a lot of regrets that I didn't do more. And I have to hold that and lean into it.


This brings me to the fantastic documentary, Forget Me Not: Inclusion in the Classroom. If you call yourself an inclusionist, you must buy a physical copy (have a DVD player?) or purchase it so you can watch it multiple times online.


Here is a synopsis: As 3-year-old Emilio prepares to start school, his family finds itself caught in a challenge all too common for children with disabilities—to secure the right to an inclusive education. Cornered in one of the most segregated education systems, New York City public schools, filmmaker Olivier and his wife Hilda turn the camera on themselves and their child with Down syndrome as they navigate a complicated system originally designed to silo children with disabilities. Emilio's parents learn from other families who have fought against the injustices built into the educational system while they continue their battle for their son's future.


The film is stunning. And not just for the clear artistry that came with producing such a beautiful documentary. My heart was pounding during the Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings because I have been in those kinds of conversations before. And I've seen the heartache of families who just want their child to be included yet the school district draws a line in the sand and dares the family to file for due process.


There is a narrative among many school district staff that families with a vision of authentic inclusive education for their children are unrealistic. It is only unrealistic because we've let systems of oppression dictate the terms of change.

There is a scene in the film where one of the school district leaders recommends a segregated setting for Emilio and says "let's see how he does... it doesn't have to be permanent." What is so infuriating about this kind of statement is that learners like Emilio don't even get a chance to be included because inclusive preschool placements are so incredibly hard to find. And even if a family secures one, it is treated as a favor rather than that learner's rightful place.


Ultimately, this film shows the devastating lack of inclusive leadership in our public schools. It's an inclusive leader who will say yes to changing a school district's practices. It's an inclusive leader that will lobby for policy changes at the state level. It's an inclusive leader who will work with a family's vision for their child instead of giving an ultimatum. If you are in higher education or teacher training, I highly encourage you to show this film to teacher candidates. We need to train the next generation of school leaders to realize that those who hold the power can change the educational system. Otherwise, we run the risk of its collapse.


You can buy or rent the film from Amazon or Vimeo.



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Tim Villegas is the Director of Communications for MCIE, Editor-in-Chief of Think Inclusive, and the host of the Think Inclusive Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealTimVegas.

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