If you had unlimited power and resources, what kind of schools would you create?

by Mary Pembleton and Becky Covalt

futuristic school illustration

WELCOME to Becky Covalt’s imagination, where she’s constructed the ideal school district from the ground up. It’s a place absent staffing shortages and pandemics and violence, one that goes above and beyond the first tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

It’s beautiful here, and we can’t wait for you to see it.

It’s a place where learners go on to become invested community members, gain strategies to overcome challenges, and lean into their strengths. It’s a place where barriers to learning, communication, and collaboration are lifted.

Doesn’t that sound nice?

WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU COULD DO ANYTHING IN A DISTRICT?

Well, what would you do?

That’s the question we posed to Covalt, who cares deeply about creating an educational environment to serve everyone involved.

Incorporating best practices gleaned from serving as Director of Special Education and 20+ years working in education, Becky’s imagined district is as winsome as her multiple Zoom backdrops, as colorful as her impassioned personality, as supportive of its students as Becky herself (which is saying a lot). The buildings are circular, and there are horses!

Also: there’s no special education here—but for all the right reasons.

Becky’s school district is grounded in the idea that people aren’t born with disabilities—perhaps they have an impairment, but it’s the way society was constructed for the able-bodied that defines disability.

This is called the social model of disability, and it diverges strongly from the medical model, which sees deficits as a problem to be fixed in order for an individual to function in society.

“In the social model of disability, it’s societal barriers and perspectives—physical, emotional, social—that create the disability,” Becky says.

For example, all of Becky’s hypothetical pre-K and kindergarten classes learn sign language, eliminating the communication barriers between learners with hearing impairments and hearing learners. The barrier is only created when society’s sole way of communicating with each other is by speaking.

The icing on the cake? Learning sign language in early childhood contributes to reading level gains and cognitive benefits. Win-win.

But that’s just one of the deeply inclusive aspects of this district.

Take a tour!

Welcome to Becky’s school!

The inclusion

What will strike you right away is that the learners and staff here are each members of a purposeful, inclusive community, each nurtured by the inclusive systems Becky’s beautiful brain has put into action.

As satisfied & purposeful members of their community, each feels valued and heard. This is just what happens in truly inclusive environments; data like this study shows that inclusion serves all learners by imparting significant cognitive and social benefits.

The building

Come on in!

If you’re a wheelchair user, you may have noticed the ample accessible parking, the lack of curbs, and the automatic doors. If you’re visually impaired (or just an observant human) you may have noticed braille is EVERYWHERE.

You’ll also see that the school building is circular in order to create an inclusive learning environment so that groups are never allocated to the end of the hallway, or a basement.

Surrounding the school building is an expanse of grounds that are home to an adaptive ropes course, accessible gardens tended by students, and, of course, equine-assisted therapy, where students work (not ride) horses in a therapeutic capacity.

“Just working with the horses is huge in building self awareness,” Becky says. “The students aren’t going to argue with that horse when it moves away in reaction to them.”

The class size

Classes are limited to twelve students, given the known benefits of smaller class sizes that include better outcomes, with two teachers serving each class who rotate in and out of the lead teacher role.

And there’s always a role for that second person, Becky says. Maybe one day they’re modeling, one day they’re taking notes on the screen, or the two teachers are teaching the same content to two groups of learners in two different ways before switching.

Check out Becky’s free webinar on Co-Teaching

The access

In this school—along with others in the district—accessibility reigns.

Everything is digital down to the lunch menus, so anybody can access them with text-to-speech in Snap&Read, anytime, with their one-to-one device, even if it’s in PDF format or text within an image.

Each classroom has software that transcribes discussions and lessons in real time on a large screen. This makes for live captioning in real-time, and anybody can access a saved copy of the lesson transcript whenever they need it.

This is helpful for students who struggle with memory, organization, note-taking, etc., for any reason.

The technology

In some classrooms, the following options would be known as accommodations. Here, though, they’re just an intrinsic part of learning, and available to anybody on their one-to-one device.

  • Reading Tools: Snap&Read has a variety of benefits that make reading accessible to most anybody
    • A student with dyslexia can use the advanced text-to-speech capabilities to read aloud any digital text.
    • An ELL student can use the translation tool to translate any digital text into their primary language.
    • A student with reading comprehension below grade level can use the text leveling tool that transforms text into easy-to-understand language.
    • A student with ADHD or executive function issues can use Snap&Read to transform a busy website with ads into streamlined text with no distractions, or use a color overlay with highlighter to focus their attention on reading.
    • A student who just wants to save time can use Snap&Read to read their homework assignment aloud from their 1:1 device while they’re walking their dog.
Co:Writer logo blue
Snap & Read logo blue
  • Writing Tools: Co:Writer organizes writers and helps bring their thoughts to the page in specialized ways.
    • A student with dysgraphia can use finely-tuned speech-to-text to bring their ideas to the screen, especially when combined with some of the other features.
    • A student who struggles with spelling can lean on neuron word-prediction, which recognizes most phonetic attempts to spell words regardless of student accuracy.
    • A student who has word recall challenges can toggle on a topic dictionary to really focus that word prediction around what they’re writing about.
    • A student who struggles with organization can use the graphic organizers to help order their notes and thoughts on the page.

Snap&Read and Co:Writer give learners independent access to the curriculum across ability levels.

The representation

Meet the principal. She’s dyslexic and hearing-impaired, and outspoken about her challenges.

Here in Becky’s district, there are persons with disabilities in positions of leadership and in staff roles. That’s because true inclusion sees members of the disabled community in leadership, and representation is paramount to learners with disabilities looking for role models with similar challenges.

You’ll also find disability studies folded into the curriculum, because according to Becky, knowing the history of ADA and disability rights activism is just as important as learning any other aspect of history.

The absence of special education

What you WON’T notice in Becky’s schools is a separate designation for special education. That’s because the intentional Universal Design for Learning approach (seen in the profound inclusion efforts here) combined with IEP’s for EVERY student means that nobody has to be singled out for their deficits. Rather, EVERYBODY has an education plan that specifies their strengths and challenges, and identifies strategies with those in mind.

Individual Education Plans for all ensures that each learner’s needs are considered, so that nobody falls through the cracks.

“I think doing this would help the students explore what works for them,” Becky says. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. It would help learners identify their strengths.”

The community

A team approach is key in this district. Practitioners, teachers, parents, students: education is collaborative, period.

Occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and other practitioners are in each classroom on a regular basis—not daily, but enough to get a feel for what a student or teacher might be struggling with and offer suggestions. This way nobody is missed or falls through the cracks because everybody has access to services.

Administrators here are all-in: they truly believe in accessibility and inclusion, and supporting the teachers in these efforts.

Members of this community have agency, and their needs are met. This includes students AND staff, lending to improved job satisfaction and therefore better outcomes for students—this study concluded that teacher happiness positively impacts student motivation and attitudes.

In operating this way, Becky hopes that the school community would lay the foundation for students to graduate and become compassionate, involved citizens.

“I think you’d see students more invested in their community and envision and explore their contributions to society,” Becky says.

So: what about you? What would YOU add? What did we miss? What would you change? Find us on Facebook or Instagram & let us know!

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