Increasing Inclusion and Social Justice in Changing School Communities

By Robert Low

Addressing Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Justice in Changing School Communities edWebinar recording link


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The combined impact of demographic changes, accountability measures, and special education requirements have created numerous challenges for educators and administrators in recent years, which were further complicated by the pandemic and societal issues during 2020.

Ways to help school communities overcome these challenges and become more inclusive and equitable were explained during a recent edWebinar, sponsored by FIU Online – Florida International University. Moderated by Dr. Flavia E. Iuspa, Assistant Teaching Professor at Florida International University’s School of Education and Human Development, the edWebinar also featured Professor and Graduate Program Director Dr. Elizabeth Cramer, and Associate Teaching Professor Dr. Maria Tsalikis.

In addition to the growth in the overall number of students being affected, there has also been a significant number of students who Dr. Cramer described as marginalized in multiple ways, meaning that a student might be a member of a minority group, speak English as a second language, live below the poverty line, and have a learning disability. This combination of circumstances may put the student at even greater risk of not achieving academic success.

Key Trends and Their Impacts

Citing data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Dr. Cramer reported that the number of Hispanic students has doubled during the past two decades and there has been a corresponding, but much smaller, increase in the number of students classified as English learners. With the number of students classified as White or Black decreasing, many districts have experienced major changes in the ethnicity and origin of their student populations.

These trends have been accompanied by an increased emphasis on holding students and teachers responsible for meeting high standards, while special education laws require students with disabilities to have access to the same curriculum. Special education students should also be considered for inclusion in general education classrooms, even if they learn at a different rate and in different ways than many of their classmates.

Dr. Tsalikis pointed out that as many as one out of every six students across the United States experienced poverty during 2020, which might include homelessness, food insecurity, and limited access to health care. The switch to remote or hybrid learning may have further impacted these students’ learning if they had limited or no access to digital tools and high-speed internet during the pandemic.

With school budgets based on property taxes in many locations, and income tax revenues falling during 2020, schools and districts may also have experienced funding inequities that are not balanced by federal programs such as Title I or by state and local initiatives. In addition, schools in affluent areas often have more access to parent volunteers in the classroom and to PTA funds, and may find it easier to engage parents in their children’s education if the parents do not work multiple jobs or speak a different language.

Ways to Increase Inclusion and Social Justice

To respond effectively to the demographic changes, Dr. Cramer recommended a culturally responsive curriculum that uses a student-centered approach, including the identification of students’ cultural strengths as assets. Learning in the context of culture can improve achievement and well-being, while helping to engage parents and other family members in the learning process.

The student-centered approach should also include consideration of learning differences, especially for students who require additional services, devices, or time to master grade-level content. The goal should be that all students have their learning needs met so there is equitable access to the curriculum and related educational opportunities.

There can also be a focus on social justice through the linking of activities and projects to real-world problems and issues. Students can be encouraged to discuss their diverse perspectives, with the understanding that they have a responsibility to support each other even if they have different views. And this can lead to positive actions such as increased acceptance and inclusion of fellow students, as well as writing articles or contacting officials about inequities.

Dr. Cramer and Dr. Tsalikis also discussed creating “communities of trust,” which can be achieved by going beyond the standard parent nights and instead using multiple forms of outreach to build bridges to families and the wider community. By identifying needs and priorities, and including diverse perspectives and voices, schools and districts will be better able to provide the support and services that diverse students need to succeed academically.

Another important part of the process is for educators and administrators to have conversations about topics such as implicit bias, which can filter into the classroom, influence expectations, and affect students’ achievement and well-being. These types of discussions can work better if they include an agreement in advance about how they will be facilitated and how conflicting opinions will be handled.

Through all these types of efforts, educators will be better able to meet the needs of diverse learners so that each student can receive an appropriate and effective education regardless of individual differences and circumstances.

This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by FIU Online – Florida International University.

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About the Presenters

Dr. Flavia E. Iuspa is an assistant teaching professor and the director of international programs and initiatives in the Department of Teaching and Learning at FIU’s School of Education and Human Development. Dr. Iuspa received her Ed.D. in curriculum and instruction with a specialization in international and intercultural education from Florida International University. She specializes in curriculum and instruction, and her research areas include internationalization process of higher education institutions, developing global perspectives in teachers and students, global citizenship education, preparing pre-service teachers to teach global issues, and politics of curriculum.

Dr. Elizabeth Cramer is Professor of Special Education and Graduate Program Director of Teaching and Learning. Her research is focused on the education of high-need children in inclusive urban settings. Her work explores opportunity and achievement gaps; the intersection of race, culture, language, poverty, and ability; collaboration with diverse family and faculty; data-based decision making; and placement issues and educational outcomes for diverse learners. Her research has led scholarly publications, national consultancies, and 12 federal grants totaling approximately $20 million in support of preparing diverse educators to work in urban settings with high-need students.

Dr. Cramer received her Ph.D. in special education and reading, her MSEd in teaching English to speakers of other languages and early childhood special education, and her BA in special education and psychology all from University of Miami. Previously, she taught special education in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Maria Tsalikis, Ed.D. has been serving students for 25 years​. She began her career with Miami-Dade County Public Schools. As a public-school teacher, Dr. Tsalikis taught a variety of grade levels from kindergarten to sixth grade and worked with struggling readers and students with special needs. As an associate teaching professor, Dr. Tsalikis has developed and taught graduate and undergraduate literacy courses in varying modalities.

Dr. Tsalikis’ background is in curriculum and instruction, with a focus in literacy education and special education. She has presented at state and national conferences in the areas of literacy and teacher preparation and has collaborated on several grants. Dr. Tsalikis is involved with the community through her leadership with projects at local public schools that focus on teacher preparation programs, teaching academies, teacher professional development, and more recently, with efforts bridging the achievement gap for struggling readers.

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Robert Low has more than 30 years of educational publishing experience, ranging from editing and product management to online advertising and content development. He also works with to write articles on their professional learning edWebinars.