Innovating Our Leadership for Social Justice

International Day of Persons with Disabilities ImageToday is International Day of Persons with Disabilities! This day has been celebrated around the world since 1992. The purpose is to promote understanding and mobilize support for persons with disabilities.


What does this mean for you?

For me, it is a chance to reflect on the many voices that shape my awareness of and appreciation for the dignity of each life. I’ll share three (some of which I think I’ve shared before on this site):

  • A first is the tremendous bookimgres by Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree. This is a book that will convince you to buy a kindle. Your biceps will grow as you turn each page. More importantly,  it will disrupt your thinking about human family and dimensions of diversity therein. I picked this book up again recently and was reminded of the vital importance of listening to voices that challenge my own experiences.

and Capper to the Leadership Institutes for Inclusive Schools discussed in the last blog… The voices of practitioners both ground and inspire me.

This is a day and age of political discord, unrest, and uncertainty. It is a vital time for each and every one of us who aspires to leadership for inclusivity and social justice to think boldly, critically, and innovatively. Days like today are essential markers for us to ally with those who are marginalized, disenfranchised, and discarded.

A matter of life and death…

Each year at Syracuse University we host  a Summer Leadership Institute on inclusive schooling that focuses on inclusion around disability. emailheaderWe feature national experts with and without disabilities. In addition, each day has a “walking the talk” section where we invite specific school/district teams to share their important work on one aspect in making better inclusive schools.

The second day of the institute featured a I am Norm group from a local high school as the “walking the talk” section. The high school has officially sponsored this group for 4 or so years. I am Norm is a national campaign to put students a key leaders in creating inclusive schools. This I am Norm group runs like a typical high school club and meets regularly after school. One of the main purposes of this group is to help the school through this club be a place where EVERYONE – each and every student – feels they belong.


During the institute the teachers and administrators who oversee the I am Norm group along with about 20 student members shared the history and h29624450356_caedc00877_mow the group works. Many of the students with and without disabilities also shared their personal stories most of which involved a past of feeling excluded and which inevitably came back to the how the I am Norm group was important for them. It was powerful!

Near the end of their presentation, a girl named Kat, shared about her experience. She shared that in no uncertain terms the I am Norm group had saved her life. She had been so traumatized by feeling alone and excluded at school that she had planned to kill herself. Her plan was detailed and specific. While planning her suicide she went to the I am Norm group meeting. There, she found comfort and a place to feel connected. She shared that this group gave her pause and a reason to change her mind about wanting to live.

Kat’s mother had come with the group to institute presentation. Kat and her mother shared what a transformative experience the I am Norm group was for Kat. Both of them were in tears as they talked, as were most of the 200 school leaders in the audience as they felt the weight of the life or death need to purposefully address belonging.

Purple Rain

I was talking to my own son about Prince this morning.


It seems like we’ve been at this all week. And while my 14-year -old is loath to show much interest in any tunes that rock my world, he is interested in Prince. Then it struck me:

There’s something remarkable about the way Prince transcends boundaries, serves as a bridge.

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Spring Fever!

Spring has sprung?

OK, I admit that when lookIMG_0467ing out my office window this week, where a March snowfall has coated the world back into a wintry white, it seems a little unbelievable that spring is in fact here. But even with this temporary setback, I know the days are growing longer and warmer, and I see the signs of new growth abounding on the trees and in the gardens.

Spring is the classic time for hope and optimism, right? So why, pray tell, does it seem like so much of life these days is mired in angst and anger? Why do we seem to be frozen, not thawing?

imagesCertainly, in the United States, our current political climate has something to do with this. Generally, Americans have pessimism about the quality of presidential candidates, for instance.  And our host of societal problems, many rooted in our ever-mounting economic disparities, at times, seem overwhelming.

Are we stuck in a perpetual Winter in America?

 And where is school leadership for inclusivity reflecting signs of new life, growth, and optimism?

I’ll point to two signs of hope springing forth, and invite you to share your own.

Sign of spring #1: UDL in ESSA! 

Congress passed and Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), replacing No Child Left Behind. This federal law will have a profound effect on public schools and districts across the country.  One of the positive dimensions of ESSA is that it provides explicit support for Universal Design for Learning (UDL). CAST, the pioneer in UDL has pointed out that ESSA essentially represents an endorsement of UDL by the feds! This may well prove to be a powerful tool for building and system- level leaders committed to inclusivity!

Sign of Spring #2: Voices of Youth

It’s always good to keep it real with the voices of the youth. As a teacher and a parent, I know that the perspectives of the children are often what challenge me and inspire me the most. So a sure sign of spring is when we take the time to listen to the voices of youth.

So UDL in ESSA and Voices of Youth are two signs of new life, providing some hope and inspiration for leadership for inclusivity.  What other signs are you seeing?

School Leadership Development Requires LGBTQ Content

This post focuses on the issues of LGBTQ students and presents an argument for the need to the specific inclusion of LGBTQ content in school leadership development. I begin this with a section documenting the historic and current reality or marginalization for LGBTQ students in K-12 schools in the United States. From there, I move to a research based understanding of the role school administration plays in school culture and in school change. Then, I discuss the research on the current state of school leadership in regards to LGBTQ students and issues. I conclude with recommendations for moving forward.


LGBTQ students Marginalized in U.S. Schools
Research over time has captured the experiences of LGBTQ students in K-12 schools. The Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) documents biannually the experiences of LGBTQ students since 1999 (Kosciw, Greytak, Palmer & Boesen, 2013).

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LGBTQ students report a hostile school climate. As of 2013, this includes 60% feeling unsafe, 85% being verbally harassed, 36% experiencing physical harassment, and 17% being assaulted, 65% hearing homophobic comments about LGBTQ students (Kosciw et al.).
LBGTQ students report a variety of consequences of the hostile climate. Students who experience higher levels of victimization are more likely to miss school, have lower grades, less likely to report they intended to pursue NSCS13 Effects Shareablepost-secondary education, and higher levels of depression (Kosciw et al). Kosciw et al report that while the overwhelming majority of LGBTQ students experience a hostile climate. Thus, it is easy to see that LGBTQ students in K-12 schools in the United States experience a marginalized education reality.

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Telling Stories

Storytelling is an important skill for school leaders.

When interacting across the range of members of school communities, school administrators are often in the role of storyteller. Whether gathering faculty, talking with parents, meeting Image result for storytellingcommunity leaders, or bantering with students, telling stories is an important skill.  

Storytelling is a powerful art. Spending a little time listening to experts like these reflect on this art will surely deepen your appreciation of the complexities to it.  Recently I engaged in an important workshop in which we wrestled with this skill on the topic of intersectionality and inclusive leadership.

It was the week before Thanksgiving, and folks in the field of educationaUCEA_imagel administration from around the country gathered in San Diego for the Annual Convention of the University Council of Educational Administration. Under the theme of Reimagining Frontiers of Education, Leadership Within Transnational and Transcultural Spaces, the gathering was imbued with a wide range of opportunities to engage in scholarship and reflection on topics that are at the heart of this blog: inclusivity, expanding opportunities to learn for traditionally marginalized students and families, and intersectionality across multiple dimensions of identity.

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Inclusivity Requires Desegregation

Our nation’s schools are deeply segregated. While there has been progress across our history to create more inclusive schools around disability, language, gender, and LGBTQI. We still have much work to do on these fronts.

At this moment racial and economic segregation in K-12 schools runs rampant across the U.S. Parts our nation (the South, West and Mid-west) are re-segregating based on race and income and parts – the Northeast and many major cities – have maintained segregated realities for decades. This is not only a school issue as housing, healthcare, employment, transportation, and a host of societal issues come together to play a role in a segregated nation.

The Civil Rights Project of UCLA, at the 60th Anniversary of the Brown v Board of Education decision, documented the current trend of segregated schools in the U.S. They found:

  • Since the late 1980’s the courts have backed off desegregation enforcement for schools.
  • In major metropolitan areas across the country we are experiencing hyper- segregation by race and income.
  • Northeastern U.S. has become the most segregated region for Black students.
  • While school segregation in the south has not returned to Pre-Brown levels, progress since 1967 has been eroded.

Public radio’s “This American Life” reminded us of this reality in a two-part report this summer, called “The Problem We All Live With.”


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We all want to belong

For those of us ensconced in the hallowed halls of the university, getting time in the trenches is invaluable.

Image result for hallowed hallsIt’s far too easy to slip into the easy comfort of talking about schools in abstract terms, to grow oblivious to the nuts and bolts, the smells and textures, the feel of actual elementary and secondary schools. For over a decade I worked as a middle school teacher and administrator, so this was my bread-and-butter. Now, I find I have to insert myself, find excuses to get into the classrooms, looking for chances to keep it real.

A recent experience that got me out of the university and back into an elementary school prompted me to reflecting on the struggle of belonging.

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Emotional Response to Diverse Competence

Each summer we host at Syracuse University a Summer Leadership Institute (SLI) for K-12 school leaders to come and get immersed in thinking, feeling and learning about how to create more inclusive schools focused on students with disabilities.


This summer over 150 leaders came from 5 states and 3 countries. While the institute has limitations, like any intense professional development, participants talk about it like it is a “revival” where you come away moved to work to create more inclusive schools. The feedback we collect indicates that participants appreciate the practical ideas and strategies, but attendee after attendee share that they had a strong emotional experience at the SLI. This blog is not to sell the institute but to reflect upon the experiences in creating an emotional reaction to want to do the hard work of making schools more inclusive.

Each day of the institute there is a keynote address by a person with a disability to lend a first person voice from adults who can reflect on their experiences through a lens of school inclusion. This year we were normface2-flp-175pxfortunate to have the nationally, Norman Kunc ; a young man with a intellectual disability who has fought against schools that have closed doors to him from elementary school through college, Micah Fialka-Feldman,mff-soe

and Carrie Bergeron CarrieHeadshot-StoryBehindTheBrandPage-AM-2012who is woman who is living a full, independent life in central New York with down syndrome.


Participants in the SLI narrate the emotional power and motivation they feel from first hand experience in hearing people with disabilities talk about their lives (joys and struggles) and the ways inclusive schools and opportunities played a role in their development and often the pain from being excluded. I believe in part the emotional reaction comes from opening up to a lived experience that many of us ignore, intellectualize, or keep at a distance. It comes from being in a space that intentionally positions people with disabilities as expert; this is the reverse of what happens time and time again in K-12 schools and in U.S. society in general in that “experts” are professionals with training and degrees that “know best.” It seems that part of the power of the emotional reaction we see each year at the SLI is the space of seeing and hearing people with disabilities as experts about their experience.

This year we had a moment that caused an important sense of reflection. Carrie, like many of our presenters, sent us her presentation power point and outline so we would know what she was doing during her keynote. As we do with many of our presenters, we offer feedback about highlighting a particular topic or suggesting that they add something more about a certain topic or asking them to spend less time on a particular topic. When we offered suggestions to Carrie her support staff indicated that this was too stressful and Carrie could not change her presentation. Carrie has people who support her, as she needs assistance through out her life. Some ways she is supported are in the preparation of presentations, email communication (as she does not decode text), advancing her power point during presentations, and other daily living support. Since this communication took place a week before the institute, we replied that is fine and we would be happy with the original presentation plan. We said we understood if changes could not be made at this time.

During the presentation, it was clear that Carrie, who had heard our email communication through a text to voice screen reader, was making the changes on the fly as she presented. Carrie, a woman with Down syndrome who has had a label of a significant cognitive disability and an “IQ” below 70, was seamlessly skipping particular slides, emphasizing particular information, and omitting whole parts of the original plan. Her adjustment were completely in line with the feedback we had given, but also completely spontaneous. Her support staff had to keep catching up with the power point slides as Carrie made changes as she talked. The result was an excellent and skillfully delivered presentation that moved the audience – and no one but a few of us who organize the SLI knew how much had been changed on the fly.

I tell this story for two reasons. First, I believe it is an affirmation of the emotional impact of creating space for hearing the lived experiences of people who have been historically marginalized. In this case the space is for people with disabilities to be experts on their experiences, but in thinking beyond the SLI creating spaces for marginalized voices is a central tenet of much civil and human rights activism and scholarly traditions like feminist and critical race theory. Second, this story serves as a keen reminder that when people are presumed and constructed to be competent they will deliver on that.



What we saw with Carrie this summer is what many skilled and seasoned presenters do, they adjust in the moment to meet the needs of their audience.