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pendredI can’t help but think back to being a tiny child and hearing all kinds of stories. I remember being told that everyone is different, and that was a good thing.  Later on in my teaching career, I began to think that that idea was just lip service. The world didn’t want different. “Different” meant chaos. “Different” couldn’t be standardized.  I came to see that MY world, the world of education, didn’t like “different,” but the REAL world, the one where things ebb and flow, that was where “different” was king. But different from what?  If we are all a little different, is there really a “normal” to compare to? 

As teachers-in-training, we learn to plan for student deficits.  Where are the gaps? What don’t they know? Where are the weaknesses?  We are taught to locate where students aren’t fitting into our system and push and prod them until they do.  This model is exhausting and ineffective for so many individuals. It’s an impossible task for both teachers and students.  How can you think the way we ask you to if your brain just doesn’t think that way? How are so many successful people bad at school?

Last year, I began working to understand Universal Design for Learning with a consultant from Kennedy Krieger, Lisa Carey.  UDL is a way of thinking about teaching and learning. It provides teachers with the idea that, if given an access point, all students can engage with the material.  The framework originated in architecture and the idea that if a building is built with stairs, it must be retrofitted with an accessibility ramp. If the architect had started with the ramp to begin with, the building would be accessible to all without retrofitting.  Planful accessibility.

Lisa helped me explore ways to make everything accessible.  What if, during planning, we looked for barriers to learning?  We explored ways that my lessons, classroom, and material could be made available to all.  With many access points, engaging material, and various ways to represent learning, all of my students could be successful.  Students could share their understanding through strength-based performances like sketching or painting. Proof of learning is proof of learning. We don’t all access material the same way and we don’t all prove learning in the same way.

This study of UDL required a certain understanding of supports.  The term “support” has historically represented any accommodation given to a student with an IEP, 504, or Behavior Plan.  Students have plans to gain access to graphic organizers or timers or speech-to-text. Exploring UDL challenged my unconscious belief that these systems could only be given to students who were qualified to have them.  Why not give everyone the option to use a graphic organizer? Why can’t everyone have a timer if it helps them? All adults have access to alarms, even if they naturally wake up early.

This idea really hit home when I sat down in front of my own television.  For as long as I can remember, my husband has had the closed captioning on in our home. He initially put it on because watching television and eating noisy snacks was causing him to miss out on important plot points. I am a person who has difficulty hearing, and realized that this support was intended for someone who was deaf or hearing impaired.  My husband, who hears perfectly well, and I were benefiting from a support unintended for us. It is a support that has saved me from having to ask what that person just said or what happened. Let’s face it, a support that saved a marriage!

My colleague, Kim Spears, and I presented with Lisa Carey at the CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology) conference last summer.  This conference is focused on all aspects of UDL. As the conference wrapped up, Kim and I found ourselves lying on the floor in the hallway of a building on Harvard’s Law campus musing about our recent realizations.  What if there is no “different”? What if it’s all about variability. If I recognize the variability in you, like your preference for digital note-taking, can you recognize the variability in me, like my need to take dramatically colorful and artistic styled notes?  If so, can we recognize it in our students? Can we let the student who has deep scientific knowledge prove it through scientific drawings and dictated speeches if their spelling skills are not yet solidified? Can we offer varied reading levels of the same topic so the student who doesn’t yet read on grade level can still participate in the conversations?  I think we need to. The world can’t handle anymore “same” or “different”. The world is ready for a little variability. 

~Tracy Pendred,  4/5 Math & Science Teacher, City Neighbors Charter School


hyleckThis summer I traveled with my mother and a group from her church on a service trip to Haiti. We had been told we were going to work on a reservoir project at St. Gabriel’s Secondary School in Fontaine, a small community in the rural northern region. The availability of clean water is a huge need for the community, so we were eager to contribute to their effort.

When we arrived, our group was informed the project wasn’t ready for volunteer labor. Instead, we were going to teach. Teach?! We weren’t teachers! We weren’t prepared! We didn’t have materials or books or curricula – none of the things we expect our children to have in school. Regardless, we dove in and I spent the next five days teaching a dozen 9th graders English.

My students, though they didn’t have much, were dedicated to their learning, inspired me to be the best teacher I could be to them, and demonstrated love for their school and one another. I made do in my simple classroom, one of just six concrete rooms with a couple of chalkboards and rude desks. Chalk and creativity were our only tools. Yet learning happened! And I witnessed the important space the school was for the community, with much of the magic happening in the shade of a large tree in the courtyard, a tree that reminded me of the tree that graces the City Neighbors logo.

Visiting a third-world country put our privilege and relative wealth into perspective. I couldn’t help but compare that school community with our school. My top observations include:

  • We have beautiful classrooms, though we have real needs for improving our facilities.
  • We have air conditioning and heating, though many City Schools do not and have to close during inclement weather.
  • We have clean drinking water, though it must be trucked in and dispensed from water coolers because the tap water is unsafe, like it is in Haiti.
  • We have free breakfast and lunch for all students, because of the poverty rate in our city and it is hard for children to learn on empty stomachs.

Most of all, we have a government that invests in education and a process for parent and community involvement in advocating for additional funding for schools. We have legislators who believe in the importance of this and took the first step by passing a bill, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, to adopt and start to fund the recommendations of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (aka the Kirwan Commission).

Now Maryland legislators need to pass a new school funding formula, phasing in billions of dollars of new funding over the next decade to fully support the Blueprint. Even in one of the wealthiest states in the US, we need to get involved to make sure that every school in the Maryland is adequately and equitably funded.

Learn more and get involved at

Elisabeth Hyleck, Parent & Board Member, City Neighbors Hamilton

erikaDuring my pregnancy I had all the dreams and wonderings of what my child would be like, as all parents do. I had heard the trials and tribulations of other parents ahead of me on their journey of raising children. Then we received the news that our first child, Amara, would be born with health challenges and an extra 21st chromosome causing Down Syndrome.  Our immediate focus was on her health and survival. We had frequent doctor appointments, hospital stays, and therapists helping us through the early years. It was easy to get lost and loaded down with the day-to-day, and it felt impossible to dream and wonder about the future.  

At age 3, when Amara entered the school system and a few of our health challenges had stabilized, we were able to start looking at and wondering about what we wanted our daughter’s future to look like. Around that time we created a vision statement to help guide our path through Amara’s education, to act as our “lighthouse.” It keeps us on course through turbulent waters, and reminds us to look ahead even when it feels like we are surviving a current storm. At that time we decided an inclusive education was important to our family. We wanted Amara to be part of a community, and to experience friendships and relationships with people of all abilities and interests. 

We visited many schools, both public and private, looking for an environment that would align with our vision for Amara’s education. When City Neighbors Hamilton opened right down the street from us, we felt we had found our right fit.  Amara began kindergarten at CNH, and as with all children and all schools, there were a few growing pains. We had to work as a team to make sure Amara was getting what she needed while also interacting and participating as part of the classroom community. It was nice not having to answer the question “Why is she here?” like I had so many times before at other schools. It allowed us to get right to the work that needed to be done and focus on problem-solving ways to meet Amara where she was at that time–all while including her in classroom lessons and activities. 

There have been many moments at CNH where I have felt the success of Amara’s inclusive education. There are school projects, play dates with friends, and the joy of hearing Amara read out loud for the first time. One time in particular stands out to me, a time where I just felt something click. Amara loves to dance, and she frequently will dance around at home. We had watched in prior years during the school’s annual Winter Arts showcase while Amara’s classmates danced on stage and Amara stood in the center like a deer in headlights, afraid to move and struggling to keep up–and every year hoping she would come out of her shell and perform with her peers. I vividly remember hearing Beyonce’s “Freedom” playing and seeing Amara come out on stage. She struggled, but she kept up with the steps and danced through the whole song with her class. I had to stifle my ugly cry from coming out. I was so proud of her hard work to overcome her fear and difficulty with learning the dance steps.  I shared an embrace with the principal and many other parents who had watched Amara’s early struggles and who also shared in the joy of her success that day. 

Erika Coughlin, Parent & Board President, City Neighbors Hamilton


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