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UDL and Inclusion: How One School District Transformed Its Community

Through Universal Design for Learning and a model of inclusivity, the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation helps all students, including students with autism, succeed together.

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Many people use a short tagline or quotation as part of their email signature. Maybe it’s to promote a work-related project, thought, or interest, or maybe it’s to offer a little window into one’s personality. Transition Coordinator Mary Hamlin and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Coordinator Rhonda Laswell, M.Ed. whose taglines are “What if? Why not?” and “If you design it, they will learn,” respectively, take their taglines seriously. Those short phrases are at the core of what they believe and how they bring those beliefs and passions to their work.

Ms. Hamlin and Ms. Laswell both work for the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation (BCSC) in Columbus, Indiana, where education is built on the district’s philosophy of “together we learn.” BCSC includes 16 schools — 11 elementary, two middle, and three high schools, an early education program, a virtual pathway program, and an alternative education program. The district — or corporation as is used in Indiana — has 11,500 students, represents 60+ languages, and has 21 buildings, which they call their “city of support.” Most impressive is the fact that BCSC has less than one percent of students who receive their instruction in a self-contained classroom. What does that mean? In a nutshell, through the use of UDL and a deep community-wide commitment to an inclusive model, almost all of their students — whether traditional learners or students with autism or other special needs — are included in mainstream classrooms.

“We’re not just going to focus on teaching down the middle, but meeting the needs of all students. How do we push students who are really excelling and how do we support the students who may struggle in certain areas academically or socially?” says Jennifer Dettmer, Ph.D, principal of one of BCSC’s elementary schools. Dakota Hudelson, a seventh-grade Writing, Literacy, and Literature teacher at BCSC, adds, “The more options there are for learning, the more all students can be included and celebrated for how they learn and what they bring to the school community.”

Ready to learn more about BCSC’s journey to inclusivity? Keeping reading and dig in to find out exactly how they transformed their school for student success. 

The more options there are for learning, the more all students can be included and celebrated for how they learn and what they bring to the school community.

Dakota Hudelson, a seventh-grade Writing, Literacy, and Literature teacher

How it all began with Universal Design


“What I have always loved most about BCSC is its focus on Universal Design of Learning. I didn’t know UDL existed when I started my student teaching, but I fell in love with it and how it can be used to create equitable learning environments,” says Mr. Hudelson, who has been teaching at BCSC for nine years. “I think the most important thing is having options for students. I love the analogy of UDL as a ramp because a ramp is a great way to get from point A to point B; it allows options for everyone. So, no matter what kind of mobility needs you have, or if you don’t have any at all, a ramp’s going to work well for you.

By providing options in the classroom, we can kind of make the classroom like a ramp where those who do need that gradual incline have it, those who don’t need it, don’t need it. They can still walk on the exact same ramp and go the same direction.” In the early 2000s, UDL was introduced throughout BCSC. It is what makes the district stand out as a place for all learners to thrive. “It’s a framework for everyone. Why? Because what works for those in the margins, works for everyone,” says Ms. Laswell.

Watch Ms. Laswell talk about how and why UDL was introduced into the fabric of BCSC and why, in many ways, it is the “secret sauce” of the district’s success in helping all learners.

“I think BCSC stands out as a model for inclusivity because UDL is more than a framework. It’s a way of thinking and doing. Whether you are looking at the cafeteria or the classroom, the playground, or even an administrators’ meeting, we model UDL from the top down and the bottom up so that it works its way into the fabric of who we are and what we do,” adds Ms. Laswell. “UDL is really about having a design mindset and a design attitude, and it’s about looking at every angle and making sure that you’re giving every student the opportunity to have access to the content and the skills they need to be successful. It’s all about teaching students how to think, not just learn.”

The use of visuals is a good example of how UDL can make a big difference through one small strategy. Principal Dettmer explains. “We may have students with autism who need a visual schedule so that they know what’s coming and can be prepared. But we may also have ‘traditional learners’ who might have focus concerns and they, too, like to know what is coming up next and what is required of them. Or we might have a kiddo with anxiety, which we didn’t know about, but who is also benefitting from the visual schedule to stay on track. So, that visual schedule we may have created for one kid with autism really has now helped lots of other students. Sometimes you might have a student with lower reading skills who maybe can’t read that it’s reading time, but can see the picture of a book on the schedule and now they know to take out their reading book. So that one little support is removing so many barriers for different kinds of kids. And I think that the more we learn about scaffolding and supports for students, the more we’re realizing we’re meeting the needs of all kids.”

Listen as Ms. Laswell talks about how school-wide strategies and supports through UDL can help all kids, even nonverbal students with autism, and provides an example of training she did with the Food Services staff.

The beginnings of full inclusion

In many ways, UDL and an inclusive classroom model are like siblings who may look quite different, but have very similar DNA. In the past — and still now in many schools across the country — students with autism or other disabilities were placed in self-contained classrooms. Now and then, they might be pulled and included in a mainstream classroom activity, but for the most part, they were separated. Oftentimes, this can be isolating. Less inclusion, less opportunity. Less inclusion, less growth.

“Working from the philosophy that including as many students as possible in mainstream classrooms no matter how they learn is a strong educational stance,” says Dr. Dettmer. “Just putting a student with autism in a mainstream classroom isn’t what full inclusion is about. It’s putting students with different needs with other kids and making sure they have the right supports. I think that’s the big key. We continually talk about what does this student or that student need to be successful? And it’s not just kids with autism, it’s all kids.”

Around 2014, the Indiana state legislature decided that teachers were no longer going to get tenure; instead, there would be a different evaluation system for all public educators. “Since BCSC was already committed to and succeeding with UDL, we partnered with Indiana University’s Center on Education and Lifelong Learning to develop a rubric that we could utilize based on our core values,” explains Ms. Laswell. “And out of that came a teacher evaluation system that is based 50 percent on UDL. So, that was the first line of support when it came to really supporting an inclusive learning environment, coupled with our deep belief in the importance of the least restrictive environment for all kiddos.”

Watch Ms. Laswell talk about the many layers of professional development and support around the UDL and full inclusivity models at BCSC.

Special Education Director Jessica Vogel who started as a teacher in 1999 remembers the transition to an inclusive model. She remembers students with mild intellectual disabilities being pulled out of their self-contained classrooms here and there, but not fully being a part of those mainstream classrooms. “It’s funny, I do remember our transitioning to a more fully inclusive classroom model, but it seemed that, on many levels, we had always been trying to push the kids with autism and other disabilities into the mainstream classroom … not just to be in the classroom, but to be there for meaningful instruction. I do remember there being pushback from some gen ed classroom teachers but also from the special ed teachers who liked working with ‘their kids’ in their own classrooms. It was definitely a shift for all of us.”

Watch Mr. Hudelson talk about what inclusion means to him as a classroom teacher and why having all types of learners in the classroom benefits all students.

“What did you do?” That was the question posed to Dr. Dettmer by a teacher in another school district. “Through word of mouth, we have lots of students from outside our district who may come to us because they’ve heard that we have more of an inclusion atmosphere, which is great. I have had students come from a self-contained room and grow tremendously within BCSC. I had one student like that who had made huge strides, and then for whatever reason, moved back to the state her family had come from. Once she was ensconced in her old school, the teacher there called and said, ‘I am shocked at how much she’s grown. What did you do?’ Again, full inclusion. While she was at BCSC, she was with peers her own age … and her communication skills grew, her academic skills grew, her social skills grew, and so that — right there — is proof that full inclusion works.”

Getting buy-in

Change can be tough. Especially for gen ed teachers and other faculty who may have been teaching successfully for many years, being told to change — to step outside their zone of comfort — is not always welcome. The very suggestion of change can feel like having to wear a scratchy, old, unwanted sweater.

There was … a vocal and enthusiastic group of special education teachers, autism coordinators, behavior coordinators, and gen ed teachers who believed vehemently in the inclusivity model and wanted BCSC not to just adopt it, but live it. When they showed the research-based benefits and how it could help all students thrive, more teachers became interested in trying to make it work in their own classrooms.

Special Education Director Jessica Vogel

“What made a significant difference in the transition to moving kids into more of an inclusive, general ed setting depended in large part on the willingness of each BCSC school’s administration to support the district’s commitment to inclusivity. Maybe that was as simple as standing up at a faculty meeting and saying, ‘This is what we’re doing and this is why it’s important,’” explains Ms. Vogel. “I think starting with the why and helping people truly understand the why makes the hard work more doable. People really are willing to put in that extra work if they understand why it’s important and why it benefits not just the students with autism or students with other disabilities, but all students. So, I think that that piece with the administrators is very important. But, looking back, there was also a vocal and enthusiastic group of special education teachers, autism coordinators, behavior coordinators, and gen ed teachers who believed vehemently in the inclusivity model and wanted BCSC not to just adopt it, but live it. When they showed the research-based benefits and how it could help all students thrive, more teachers became interested in trying to make it work in their own classrooms.”

Watch Ms. Vogel talk about why starting with the “why” of adopting an inclusive model was key to getting buy-in with educators.

Open configuration options

During his teacher training, Mr. Hudelson received little focus on special education, and had never heard of UDL until he started teaching at BCSC. Listen as he talks about the challenges and rewards of incorporating UDL and full inclusion as a new teacher into his classroom and the steps he took — with school support — to succeed.

The nitty gritty of full inclusion

How everyone works together

Again, when educators understand the “why” rather than the “how” of a model, things tend to fall more easily and successfully into place. BCSC is very fortunate to have many layers of support in staff, specialists, peer networks, and even state organizations. In addition to its multitude of general education and special education teachers, within the 16 schools and 21 buildings that make up the corporation, BCSC has five behavior and autism coordinators. These specialists split their time between different schools and support classroom teachers by:

  • creating behavioral plans for specific students
  • helping teachers with scaffolding their curriculum to ensure all students succeed
  • modeling, training, and coaching faculty about UDL and inclusivity with a strong focus on students with autism and other special needs
  • spending time in classrooms to help with specific students as needed.

Autism Coordinator Bethany Scruton says, “Having colleagues across the board who share core beliefs of an inclusive model while also being supported by administrative leaders who give us the freedom to be the experts in what we do makes all the difference to the success of our programs.”

Listen as Ms. Scruton talks about how she helps classroom teachers as one of the district’s autism coordinators and Principal Dettmer gives an example of how she works with her faculty and staff as well as the strategies they have put in place to help kids in the classroom day after day.

All the other pieces

Working together as a team lays a foundation for success but there are many other pieces that come together to drive BCSC’s success. Read on to learn more.

Professional development and collaboration

“Collaboration is definitely key to our success with our inclusivity model. It is woven through everything we do, no matter what job you have in the corporation,” says Ms. Scruton. BCSC offers a great deal of required and optional professional development around UDL and inclusivity and how best to teach and support all learners, but especially those with autism, behavioral needs, or other special needs in general ed classrooms.

The autism coordinators and behavior coordinators meet weekly to share ideas and challenges. There is also an Autism Leadership Network, which was launched through the state-wide organization, Indiana Resource Center for Autism (IRCA), where autism and behavior coordinators can collaborate via a group listserv and meet monthly with their counterparts across Indiana to join forces, give presentations, and invite guests to speak. And twice yearly, IRCA hosts a day-long conference that can cover anything from new research about autism and neurodiversity to technologies that can complement teaching in the classroom.

For the last few years, BCSC has built in four required PD days into the calendar to focus on inclusivity and how best to support all learners in and beyond the classroom. BCSC also hosts a UDL Summer Institute — an optional two-day conference to support the staff’s UDL journeys. Available in person or virtually, the primary focus is on UDL and Positive Behavioral Instructional and Supports (PBIS). 

“What makes a big difference across the board is PD — whether it’s a formal training day or the Summer Institute or a UDL or autism coordinator working directly with a teacher in a classroom. And, of course, the fact that we model UDL and inclusivity in all of our PD,” says Ms. Laswell. “So, we’re constantly being transparent about how we’re designing the instruction for teachers, but also supporting them in their classroom.”

In this clip, Ms. Laswell talks about the many layers of professional development and support around the implementation of UDL, including the New Teacher Academy.

Some students on the spectrum at BCSC are non-verbal or need supportive technologies in the classroom. This can often require training and buy-in from the teacher. To help with this, Ms. Scruton may work one-on-one with a teacher in a classroom to scaffold lessons that include such technologies. “A lot of what I do is expanding people’s awareness of what supports are out there to help students with autism, with a focus not on how to use the technology, but why it’s important for a student to use,” she says. “I remember one teacher who after helping a student learn to use a speech talker on an iPad in the classroom told that child he couldn’t take it outside to recess because, well, an iPad is expensive. But how is that kid going to talk with his friends at recess without it? So, again, it all goes back to the mindset of inclusivity and what that means for each child.”

What makes a big difference across the board is PD — whether it’s a formal training day or the Summer Institute or a UDL or autism coordinator working directly with a teacher in a classroom. And … we model UDL and inclusivity in all of our PD, so we’re constantly being transparent about how we’re designing the instruction for teachers, but also supporting them in their classroom.

Rhonda Laswell, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Coordinator 

In and beyond the classroom: academics and socialization

UDL naturally informs educators on how to capitalize on students’ strengths,” says Ms. Laswell, “Part of that comes from the principle of engagement and really asking students for their input, but also making sure that learning is valuable, authentic, and relevant. This applies not only to academics but also for socialization — building relationships, taking risks, and learning from our mistakes and our victories.”

In this clip, Mr. Hudelson gives some examples of how he helps students learn social skills like how to provide peers with constructive feedback or how to understand microaggressions, which are woven into his academic lessons.

Sometimes, lessons on social emotional learning are directed primarily at traditional learners so they can better understand, appreciate, and support their classmates with autism or other special needs. BCSC also promotes formalized peer relationships through small-group lunch bunches where, for example, a few “positive peers” may join a teacher and an autistic student to play a game like “Would You Rather?” to practice conversational skills.

In this clip, Ms. Scruton talks about how she helps both traditional and autistic students learn from and support one another as they build friendships and peer relationships in and beyond the classroom.

Enter: robots. Ms. Scruton talks about using robots with some students with autism or behavioral challenges to help them practice social skills.

Throughout all grades and schools at BCSC, there are formalized groups that partner typical peers with peers with autism like Best Buddies, Young Champions, and Unified Sports — all in an effort to create opportunities for one-on-one friendships and to develop a deeper understanding of all people. “In the grand scheme of things, these programs and partnerships help kids understand that we are all different and we all have strengths and we all have weaknesses, but, most importantly, how we can grow from this knowledge,” says Dr. Dettmer.

In this clip, Ms. Vogel talks about the growth she has seen in both typical and autistic children because of programs like Best Buddies, her daughter included. She sees them as a chance for kids to make more authentic connections.

Helping students regulate their emotions

BCSC has many strategies to help students, especially those with autism and behavioral issues, regulate and deal with big emotions. Maybe a student is simply having a bad day. Maybe the lights are too bright, or a thread on the collar of their shirt feels like a knife. Maybe they feel simply overwhelmed by all the expectations they feel pressing down on them. BCSC has calming corners — or as some call them, “amygdala first-aid stations” — in all their classrooms. There are noise-cancelling headphones, sensory rooms, and peer buddies who can make an enormous difference in how an autistic student may deal with a challenging day, situation, or reaction. And all the supports are built into the models of UDL and inclusivity.

“Another important part of UDL is making sure we have options for self-regulation,” says Mr. Hudelson. “One thing I focus on doing early in the year is teaching intentionally to all students, not just those with autism. What do you do if you’re feeling overwhelmed? What are the options available?” Watch Mr. Hudelson speak more in depth about how he helps students with autism, in particular, access tools for emotional regulation and how having strategies in place at the beginning of a school year, determined by a student’s entire case committee, can make an enormous difference. 

Mr. Hudelson adds, “It seems a lot of the kids feel more comfortable approaching students and letting them be who they are. And I think inclusion is part of that, too. When you grow up constantly learning that everyone’s different, everyone has unique needs, everyone’s needs should be met, and we’re not going to judge people for the way they are, then we talk about that in the context of students with extraordinary learning needs or disabilities. And that is easy to apply to all groups.” 

Capitalizing on students’ passions and strengths

Every student wants to feel special. To feel seen, heard, understood — and celebrated for even their smallest of victories. At BCSC, faculty and staff find ways in and beyond the classroom to capitalize on students’ interests and passions. 

“Tying topics being learned in the classroom to something in students’ lives can be very powerful academically and socially. And when we find opportunities for students to make these connections, they can also showcase their special interests and knowledge,” says Ms. Laswell. In this clip, Dr. Dettmer talks about how by capitalizing on students’ strengths and interests, students can expand their sense of belonging as they feel a greater connection to their classroom community. 

In Mr. Hudelson’s classroom, learning is all about choice. In a unit on writing narratives, students could write about any topic they wanted as long as they incorporated some of the new techniques they had been learning like using sensory imagery to improve descriptions or choosing better verbs to communicate action. “A lot of my students on the spectrum love these kinds of assignments because they can delve as deeply as they like into a topic of interest, write what excites them about the topic, then share this extensive knowledge with the class,” says Mr. Hudelson.

Watch Mr. Hudelson give a detailed example of how he engaged an autistic student’s intense interest in history by asking questions, involving the whole class, and encouraging the student to bring his knowledge to life in a writing assignment.  

Transitioning from high school to the adult world

In large part because of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation’s commitment to UDL and inclusivity, BCSC makes sure they work together to help students transfer successfully grade to grade and school to school.

Principals, administrators, teachers, specialists — and parents — communicate grade by grade as students transition to the next level. “This is very important, especially for students with autism or special needs, who have IEPs, and whose teaching teams have created useful strategies that need to be understood and passed along,” says Dr. Dettmer. “What do students need? How do they transition, and what do we need to do to support them? It’s all about open communication.” What about transitioning from high school into the adult world?

Around 2022, Mary Hamlin, a teacher of more than 25 years, stepped into the role of transition coordinator for the district’s new Empower Program. A one- to two-year transition program on the AirPark Columbus College Campus and within the community itself, Empower works with 18- to 21-year-old BCSC students with IEPs who graduated with an alternative diploma. “The Empower Program is meant to provide students with a chance to participate in the college experience while also developing skills to live a fulfilling and independent adult life,” explains Ms. Hamlin. Listen as Ms. Hamlin talks about how the Empower Program was launched, how it has grown community-wide, and why she is so passionate about it.

“With our amazing community — considering the size, the safety, our bus system — we have ample opportunity to be able to help our students truly navigate the adult world beyond the high school setting,” says Ms. Hamlin. To date, Ms. Hamlin works with various community organizations, universities, and companies to help her graduates get experiences or work positions not only to teach them how to navigate life but also to have their best life possible. “The community is learning along with us that young people with autism or other special needs can be incredible employees, incredible members — in so many ways — to our community.

“For me, the work we do is a human rights issue. It is about everyone living to their full potential, having their sense of self and a purpose. Without that, people are discriminated against and are not able to be a full-fledged citizen of our community. Our community is very special. I absolutely love where I live, and the people here truly want to ask, ‘what if and why not?’ Once we can — as a community — have meaningful conversations around naming the barriers and finding ways around them, we’re able to promote this independent living for all.”

Among many others, Ms. Hamlin shares one of her student’s success stories. She remembers an autistic student from back in elementary school — this was before UDL and the inclusivity model had been adopted — who was in a self-contained classroom. Over the years, he got included more often in gen ed classes, then fully mainstream in high school. He became more involved, more confident, and even got his driver’s license. For his senior project, he developed a card for people with disabilities to carry with them so if they got stopped by the police, they could show the card and the police would know that the person, because of their disability, was stressed or reactive, not violent or belligerent. The card is something the Arc of Bartholomew now uses — a non-profit that “promotes and protects the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and actively supports their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes.”This former BCSC student now lives independently, rides an e-bike, and works at a local grocery store. Recently, he spoke to other students in the Empower Program about his transition out of high school, how he’s chosen to live, and the supports he uses.

BCSC’s secret sauce

Although BCSC says they are not perfect in their mission for full inclusivity, they are proud of what they have created for so many students and families, educators, and community members. And the commitment to the work continues.

In this clip, Ms. Vogel shares her thoughts on why BCSC has been so successful helping traditional students and students with autism and other special needs thrive in and beyond the school.

Why is being a part of BCSC so meaningful? Every single one of us, if we live long enough, will become disabled in some way, and the world will become less accessible to us. And so, what we’re doing isn’t just for the children with disabilities, rather it’s about helping all of us … creating a supportive community that is open and inclusive to everyone no matter how they learn or live. When we create a community that is completely accessible, we’re meeting the needs of every individual who lives here.

Mary Hamlin, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation

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