Last week I reposted a blog from Edutopia on the six factors that have led to ELT implementation success at Edwards Middle School in Boston, MA. This week, another blog on Edutopia, written by Special Education Coordinator at the Edwards, Craig Haas, deserves some major attention as well.

In his post, Haas describes how the school drew inspiration from its special education department while assembling its plan to implement ELT. An important take away – at no point was disability factored into the equation. I’ve been in this space for about two years now and have worked closely with teachers from the Edwards and this blog post was news to me. The school fosters a culture where all students can achieve academic success and by knowing each student’s strengths and learning style, teachers can leverage additional time to personalize instruction and help all students reach high academic goals.

A key premise in special education is that each child is an individual who learns differently. But I find it odd that this is specifically a special education presumption — shouldn’t this hold true for all students? By designing classrooms that ensure all students can access high-quality curriculum, students who once never interacted with each other during the school day are now sitting side by side under the ELT redesign. In doing this, the school reinforces the idea that no matter their differences, they share a common academic challenge. Approaching a redesigned expanded school day through a school-wide understanding that students all have different learning needs is critical. And in doing so, the Edwards accomplished something hard to measure but extremely powerful: a strong sense of school community where everyone belongs.

By integrating students based solely on academic focus, the Edwards has been able to eliminate old stigmas. Every child with an IEP participates in both the academic and enrichment activities of ELT. Students diagnosed with emotional or intellectual disabilities now sit side by side with their peers in subjects like math and history to rocket building and theatre. ELT has enabled the school to offer a wide variety of subjects, where students who had previously viewed school as a place of no personal relevance can began to explore and demonstrate their strengths in new ways.

Our good friends over at the American Association of People with Disabilities report that currently over 85% of students with disabilities have experienced some form of bullying while at school. I wonder if more schools had the flexibility to redesign their school day, like the teachers and students at the Edwards did, if we would see this number dramatically decrease. The optimist in me has to believe that the force of a strong school community would drive damaging stigmas away and invite a powerful environment for student engagement and acceptance. And when schools like the Edwards are making it a reality, I’m excited for more schools to follow suit.