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Equal Access to all Toppenish Students

Four years ago, Toppenish School District was named a Model District by the University of Washington Haring Center for Inclusive Education for its efforts in implementing Inclusionary Classrooms throughout the District. TSD remains one of the only districts in the state of Washington to have an inclusive education system from preschool to 12th grade. Inclusionary education allows all students, regardless of their ability, to learn together in one environment. In other words, students with disabilities are taught in the classroom as students without disabilities.

Sandie Birley, Toppenish Director of Special Services, and Kim Williams, Assistant Special Education Director, say the aim of inclusive education is to ensure all students have access to grade-level and content-expert teachers without the need to be in segregated settings.

“Having an inclusive education environment not only helps students with disabilities integrate into their school community,” says Birley. “It normalizes them and removes some of the stigma surrounding disabilities among student peers.”

In 2018, Washington State ranked 44 out of 50 states for Inclusive practices. To support more inclusive schools, the 2019 Washington State Legislature funded the Inclusionary Practices Professional Development Project, a two-year, $25,000,000 project to support educator professional development for inclusionary practices. Toppenish Middle School
was selected as one of 10 facilities in the state to be highlighted as a “demonstration site.”

TSD’s journey to inclusion started in 2014, far before it was a state initiative, and they knew they didn’t want to limit the model to just the middle school.

Birley notes, “We knew all the research showed it was the right thing to do for student learning, both for students with special needs and their general education counterparts.”

As a result, Toppenish is one of the only schools in the state to have adopted inclusionary education district-wide. Over 98% of their students with disabilities learn in a general education setting 80% - 100% of each day. Birley says implementing inclusive education throughout the district was a huge endeavor, but one she’s proud the district prioritized.

“There was no roadmap for what we’ve done here. Our program is self-accredited and self-generated,” says Birley. “But we knew that it was the right decision to serve our entire student body.”

Birley notes TSD now has inclusive classrooms in pre-K through 12th grade and their efforts are paving the way for other districts throughout the state. This year alone, they have hosted learning tours for representatives from Kennewick, Wapato, Shelton, Eastmont, Moses Lake, Grandview, and Auburn school districts, as well as the office of OMBUDS, ESD special education directors from around the state, and the Executive Director of Special Education at Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).