Inclusive Education in International Schools: The Tide that Lifts all Boats
By Dr. Eric H. Habegger, Catalina Artunduaga, and Laura de Brigard
Colegio Nueva Granada, Bogota, Colombia

An abridged version of this feature, along with feedback from other school leaders will be published in the first issue of International School Leader Magazine which will be published this May.


Given that our Learning Center has served students with special needs for more than 45 years and annually provides 160-200 students with an inclusive education program, our policy for admissions has continued to evolve in order to align with the ongoing expansion of our continuum of services.


Colegio Nueva Granada (CNG) weighs four key factors during the process of evaluating and making balanced admission decisions: 1) availability of the necessary programs and services to meet a student’s identified needs 2) sufficient certified support staff to deliver high-quality service provisions without teacher overload; 3) distinction between children with predominately academic/cognitive learning needs versus behavior-modification requirements; and, 4) appropriate opportunities that help provide an optimal environment for a student to learn and grow with like peers


As two of the most recent policy changes incorporated over the past few years, CNG has added a Resource Room to provide services for children with severe special needs. Our school now accepts children whose IEP’s might require that the majority of their core academic classes are taught in a resource-room setting. Secondly, our school has also fully implemented a co-teaching model from K4 through 12th. This service-delivery approach allows for more options in program delivery and student support, which can work especially well for the inclusion of students with learning needs at the secondary level.


Finally, CNG’s ongoing student assessment and program evaluation system has generated much richer data sets and more sophisticated metrics that help inform the admission process. As a result, our entry and exit criteria have become far better defined, and we have higher predictive capabilities not only to gauge the probability of student success (or lack thereof) but also to determine the appropriate service provisions needed for each student’s entry.


The changes we are making

One of the major areas of focus at CNG has been the systematic use of data to guide interventions and monitor student growth. By further strengthening this area, we have better aligned our school with best practices in special education, specifically ensuring the early identification of students with learning needs and implementing a multi-tiered system of support for students at greater risk of poor learning outcomes. Using this early identification strategy along with the training of teachers to provide Tier-1 levels of support within the classroom, CNG has optimized our staffing plan, thus allowing for the extension of our co-teaching model at the secondary level as well as adding a Resource Room for severe needs. As a result, our school can serve more children, more efficiently, through more programs.


Specifically related to early identification and intervention, at the primary level, CNG uses universal screening tools to assess all students from K4-2nd in their development progress toward gaining the foundational essential skills needed for success at each grade level. Students at risk of poor learning outcomes begin to get targeted supports with increasing levels of intensity based on their response to intervention and subsequent growth patterns. At the other building levels, we triangulate and assess data from both internal and standardized testing in order to help us identify students who may be at risk, and then we provide them with intensive, structural interventions as early as possible in their schooling.


For those students already receiving special education services or entering with an IEP, they are monitored frequently to assess their growth and response to the services provided, which helps us evaluate if interventions should be intensified or adjusted. Finally, CNG employs two data analysts who utilized a high-end data management system to assist our Student Support Team and classroom teachers in evaluating these comprehensive data to refine their delivery structure for each student.


The impact this is having

International schools place great emphasis on developing key universal values within their student populations and school communities -- respect, empathy, perseverance, caring, understanding, and tolerance. Schools that promote a high-quality education for all students have the unique opportunity to enhance these character values by building a community with more inclusive and respectful attitudes toward all types of diversity, including children with learning differences. 


Our community has learned over the years to understand, nurture, and find worth in the unique interests and abilities of all students based on their individual passions and career goals. Fewer than 25 years ago, our parents traditionally expected graduates to enter medicine, law, engineering, and international business. As of today, our average graduating class chooses nearly 40 different career paths and university majors. True diversity in learning gets valued over time for inclusive schools.


Additionally, from an admissions, finance, and demographic perspective, CNG attracts students with special needs from all over the world given our continuum of services, and their siblings join them too, thus keeping families together as well as improving the school’s bottom line. All students benefit from a broader-based student population as they prepare to enter a diverse and rapidly changing world. In the past six years alone, our school has nearly doubled the number of student nationalities and total international enrollment due in part to our inclusion programs. As just one example, we have experienced dramatic shifts in student demographics from historical averages of around 20-25 nationalities to almost 50 different countries represented within our community today.


Lastly, any school’s commitment to the continued development of improved inclusion services provides better delivery of educational programs to both students with learning needs as well as all other students. A co-teaching model gives more opportunities for ensuring the least restrictive environment for students and reduces stigma through decreased pull-out approaches. A Resource Room actually functions as a mini-community for students with severe needs previously restricted to learn individually. As a final plus for all students, the training of teachers in delivering Tier-1 interventions along with leveraging effective learning approaches in a co-teaching context allow every student to benefit from differentiation strategies.


Leading change to becoming more inclusive

We strongly believe at CNG that inclusive education signifies the proverbial tide that lifts all boats. If we could only offer only one piece of advice to international school leaders committed to the learning of ALL children, then we would offer the following two-fold strategy: paint with a broad brushstroke and carefully plan your school’s message management to target all stakeholder groups. In short, we know that all school communities believe in helping students achieve their individual potential for excellence. All educators understand that current research and best practices focus on the importance of providing differentiated instruction and more personalized learning opportunities for all children. Inclusive education is not a zero-sum game for international schools. In actuality, everyone benefits and nobody loses.


In the end, the wisest educational leaders and school boards recognize that “special education services” apply equally to gifted-and-talented students as well as children struggling with their learning. As an added benefit, school heads and boards also have a fiduciary responsibility to the entire community that inclusive education will help support the entire school program. Just as labeling students with learning challenges falls far short of recognizing their true potential for growth, in similar fashion, labeling any international school as “inclusive” has the tendency to focus only on services for those with learning challenges. Actually, inclusion is all about programs that address individual learning needs and help all students grow as learners. 


As a result, the following five outcomes serve as the leveraging and communication point for leaders ready to promote inclusive education:

  • Better trained teachers in differentiated learning serve to benefit all students across the entire learning continuum from gifted to struggling students.

  • Universal screening and early identification help provide timely interventions and Tier-1 modifications that help all students improve through progress monitoring.

  • Significant revenue generation can occur through increased headcount and preferential school-of-choice status among companies and embassies who want to keep their family units together.

  • Increased performance standards often result as more individualized programs help provide the greatest benefit to students with the most growth potential.

  • Schools develop a stronger sense of community as all types of learners are valued for their unique abilities and contributions to the school. 

  • As international school leaders, we have an ethical responsibility to serve ALL children and keep families together among our local and international populations. If schools actually focus on the key drivers for their own competitiveness and long-term success, then inclusive education simply reflects a far better educational and business model for improved instruction, better student performance, and more robust school finances. Based on these key comprehensive drivers, we have found over the years at CNG that all boats get lifted, and the entire school community fundamentally benefits from it.


Dr. Eric H. Habegger is Director at Colegio Nueva Granada in Bogota, Catalina Artunduaga is Learning Center Director and Laura de Brigard is Director of Admissions

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