Before 1975, inclusive education was unthinkable. Most students with disabilities like autism and Down syndrome were educated in separate schools or institutions, often with little exposure to their same-age peers.
While inclusive education has become more prevalent across the United States, many districts still segregate students by disability in special education classrooms. In these classrooms, the curriculum is often watered down, adequately trained staff are difficult to find, and models for behavior and communication are loathsomely absent.
Then there are schools like the CHIME Institute.
Located in Woodland Hills, California, the CHIME Institute is a charter school, founded in 1990, serving as a national model of inclusive education. The CHIME Institute implements a unique model of inclusive education, where students who have a variety of learning challenges and strengths learn together side-by-side. It does not matter if students have a disability like autism or Down syndrome; there is always a place for them in a general education classroom.
The institution was born as a pre-school and kindergarten inclusion program based at California State University, Northridge. From it, a group of parents and faculty developed a charter elementary school in 2001 and a charter middle school in 2003. In 2010, the CHIME Institute's Schwarzenegger Community School (K-8) was born when the two schools were merged.
The school supports research efforts through its partnership with California State University and has visitors from surrounding school districts and other countries such as Japan and the United Kingdom. Student teachers from the Los Angeles Unified School District also do some of their fieldwork at CHIME. Its K-8 school is tuition-free, and a lottery determines admission.
"Imagine a world where all children are equally valued, a world where all children are seen as a gift." The mission and values of CHIME make it stand out from other charter schools.
Not only is this evident in the leadership of its Executive Director Dr. Erin Studer, but it permeates every classroom through the teachers and paraprofessionals.
Some of the critical components of their philosophy of education include:
Beyond CHIME's philosophy, some of the unique features of its program include:
In a typical public school, special education teachers may feel separated from other educators. For example, with an elementary school of 700 students, there may be two special education program classrooms. Usually, special education teachers teach multiple grade levels. While general education teacher peers have grade-level planning times to collaborate on instructional strategies, special education teachers often have no planning.
At CHIME, co-teaching and co-planning are an expected practice. Since there are no separate special education classrooms, teachers can meet together during standard planning times, giving them the needed collaboration opportunities. Special education teachers are a valued part of the school community and not only provide insights into working with students who have learning challenges but all the students in the classroom.
Another benefit of spreading out the support of special education teachers across the school is that it reduces the stigma of receiving individualized support. Many students know where their work has to be adapted some way to help them learn. In a typical school setting, these accommodations stick out as entirely different from what the class is doing. In a school like CHIME, adaptations are just part of the normal flow of the classroom, so students do not feel singled out.
It is easy to see that CHIME's model works for them, and they have standardized test scores to prove it. Why is it not replicated more?
The most honest answer is that is it difficult.
While inclusive education has undoubtedly proved to be effective, there are considerable barriers to its implementation. A smaller school like CHIME can control more variables to ensure fidelity of inclusive practices, but once you expand to more schools or districts, it becomes more challenging.
One thing that Dr. Erin Studer emphasizes when he speaks about the model is that the leadership of the school or district must communicate the expectation of inclusion. Without buy-in from the entire staff, it is often an outnumbered special education department that leads the charge for inclusion.
CHIME is a shining example of what is possible when all students are valued, and educators are equipped to meet their needs.
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