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Beyond the Schoolhouse to Systems Change: Transformation Through Inclusive Leadership


By Cynthia Mruczek


Yayoi Kusama. Infinity Mirrored Room–The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away. 2013. Wood, metal, glass mirrors, plastic, acrylic panel, rubber, LED lighting system, acrylic balls, and water. 113 1/4 x 163 1/2 x 163 1/2 in.

Over the course of an almost-20-year career teaching in public schools and in higher education, I have had the privilege of working with all kinds of people. Some of these individuals have become my nearest and dearest friends. Others float on the periphery of my life—coming into focus every so often to exchange well wishes or compliments on one another’s families. Others…well, our professional relationship ended with new positions or life events that sent us down different paths. I am thankful for each of these relationships—they have all brought me valuable insights on teaching, learning, working with kids, and curricula. Most recently, my career path led me to accept the role of coordinator of the Leadership in Special and Inclusive Education Graduate Certificate (LSIE) at the University of Kansas. This position involves considerable  collaboration—and a new learning curve where I continue to draw on the successes and failures that have shaped my career to date. Here, I highlight what I have learned in my work with others to create more inclusive school communities and reflect on what has been missing in our collective leadership efforts.


As a former special education teacher, a general education teacher, and teacher-educator, I have always held the belief that students with disabilities need to be fully included in the general education classroom. As the product of a relatively traditional special education undergraduate program, this was my initial definition of what “inclusion” entails. I relied largely on where students should physically and situationally receive services, as opposed to a more complex understanding of the habits of thinking and attitudes that produce and sustain inclusive education as a practice and a school culture. Luckily, I was encouraged to explore this deeper definition by my own teacher-mentors, and through formal and informal professional learning opportunities, often prompted by lunch room conversations with other colleagues. Led primarily by my former principal (let’s call her “KD”) — my fellow staff members and I were encouraged as a group to “reflect, refine, and reach higher” in our collective understanding of how to best meet the needs of all students, including students with disabilities.


We worked with students who experienced an array of challenges that moved beyond any categorical understanding of “ability”— poverty, discrimination, and learning English as a second language in an English Only state to mention but a few. In the midst of these realities, KD encouraged us to think about what we could do differently. She inspired us to move beyond pathologizing or situating the problems in the students and their families. She encouraged—or really required us—to think about the positive relationships we needed to build with all children and how to create a culture where there was always “someone who really loved them” at school.

We certainly were not perfect and we encountered many challenges. Yet, with this as our primary mission, we made great strides in creating a school climate where many of our students were happy and comfortable. It showed in their achievement levels and their behaviors. For example, we had a number of kids who challenged gender norms through their dress and attitudes. Some “came out” directly as lesbian or gay with virtually no reaction, and in essence full acceptance, from the staff and student body. As educators and role models, we had many important conversations about “identity.” We considered how we positioned ourselves as individuals as well as how our identies impacted our classrooms where the majority of kids we worked with were racially, ethnically, and linguistically minoritized. In my current role as the LSIE coordinator—many may imagine I have a skewed, if not a romanticized vision of what a school can achieve. However in hindsight and in reality, I have had first-hand experience of the kind of magic strong leadership and inspired educators can produce. I have observed and experienced what students—all students—can achieve when they are allowed to feel included in their own success. This “magic” validates and underscores my belief that inclusive practices work and produce the best outcomes for all students, especially students with disabilities.


Allan Rohan Crite. School’s Out. 1936. Oil on canvas. Photograph taken by Sorcha Hyland courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, May 2016. As the label associated with the exhibition of this painting noted, it represents a romanticized view of the Everett elementary school in Boston’s South End and captures Crite’s life-long efforts to challenge stereotypical depictions of Black communities.

As is the norm, many of us in this magical school, under the leadership of KD, moved on to new positions and other opportunities. Yet I continue to return to the stories and strategies I gained from this period in my career to inform my current work in preparing future teachers and administrators. After I left this school, I continued to have many pivotal experiences that further pushed me to think critically about our efforts, and more importantly, to imagine “what could be.” My understanding and definition of an inclusive school is, now, more than ever, primarily focused on social justice. Scholars well-known to KU SPED, Waitoller and Kozleski (2013, p. 35), define inclusive education as,

[T]he continuous struggle toward (a) the redistribution of quality opportunities to learn and participate in  educational programs, (b) the recognition and value of differences as reflected in content, pedagogy, and assessment tools, and (c) the opportunities for marginalized groups to represent themselves in decision-making processes that advance and define claims of exclusion and the respective solutions that affect their children’s educational future…

picture-5Under KD’s visionary leadership, we made headway on the “redistribution of quality opportunities to learn” while we strived to develop our abilities to better include parents and families in the decision-making process. This remains an ongoing learning process in light of the very structured and standardized educational climate in which public schools across the nation are situated.  Visionary and inclusive leadership is not easy. There were times under KD’s leadership when we attempted to enact school-wide reform efforts only to be stopped in our tracks by competing district or state-driven policies.

A framework for systems change (Kozleski, King Thorius, and Smith, 2014) would have been critical in our work, in order for us to adapt to and navigate the complexities involved in engaging multiple, intersecting activity systems. In order to work towards more socially just and equitable results for all students, particularly those at the margins of participation (e.g., students with dis/abilities, those learning English, kids from undocumented families, etc.)—a systems change framework would have been paramount to our efforts.

Further learning was needed for us to understand the multifaceted aspects of our own intersectional identities too and equally, to recognize the intersections our students also navigated and experienced (Crenshaw, 1991). Such frameworks, and an emphasis on intersectionality, would have equipped us to better deconstruct and understand how power and privilege could further marginalize and oppress our school culture, ourselves as teachers, and most importantly our students who came from communities where generations experienced marginalization and oppression first hand.

We made great strides, but not without a lot of challenging and emotionally charged work that had to be done. As I reflect back on our successes and where we fell short – I am, as I know many of my former colleagues are, very proud of the work we, and our students, collectively accomplished at that school. Yet I am again reminded, as Kozleski and Huber (2012) note, that transforming one school is insufficient. As the coordinator of the Leadership in Special & Inclusive Education Graduate Certificate at the University of Kansas Special Education Department(KU SPED), we now have a program that can fill a critical and an important need across many, if not all, school communities.


Street poster art curated and produced by children in a “guerilla art camp”, facilitated and taught by the Lawrence Arts Center, Lawrence, KS. Photograph courtesy of Sorcha Hyland.

The KU SPED LSIE Graduate Certificate is designed to address the needs of not just one school, but of an entire system of schools. Our mission is to provide school leaders and administrators with the tools, knowledge, and habits of thinking they need to build a very solid background in special education law and policy, in the context of creating more inclusive school cultures. LSIE positions and prepares professionals from all sectors of school administration—to lead sustainable reform efforts at multiple levels of the public education system. The readings cited in this blog, for example, are indicative of the kind of critical thinking and research-based discussion that LSIE offers its student participants as they learn what it means to become leaders in the field of cutting-edge inclusive education practices, not just in the United States, but internationally.


Elizabeth Kozleski (Chair), Michael Wehmeyer & Ann Turnbull, leaders in inclusive education practices from the University of Kansas Special Education Department. Professor Kozleski developed, leads and also video-presents in the LSIE program, with Tom Skrtic pictured below. 

This 32-week program is designed as a highly innovative, professional online learning experience where state-of-the-art processes such as game simulation of district-level decision-making, interactive discussion boards, and intensive instructor-student and peer-to-peer interactions are used to build deep, collaborative learning opportunities. Participants who successfully complete this online KU SPED Graduate Certificate are fully equipped to advance the rights of all students, confront biases about special education and other historically marginalized populations, and overcome implementation challenges of inclusive and special education policies in systemic and sustaining ways.


University of Kansas Special Education Distinguished Professor, Thomas Skrtic, conceptualized the LSIE program, and also video-presents key constructs and themes throughout.

In closing, I ask that if any aspect of this story resonates with you – if you are in a leadership position in a school or district, if you hope to be in a leadership position someday, if you are searching for more socially just opportunities for all students, or you are interested in understanding the research on the leading edge of inclusive schools –check out our LSIE Graduate Certificate. Join us to work towards reforming and transforming not just “one” school, but our whole school system as we lead and educate to advance the rights of all students.



Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.

Kozleski, E. B., & Huber, J. (2012). System-wide leadership for culturally responsive education. In J. Crockett, B. Billingsley & M. L. Boscardin (Eds.), Handbook on Special Education Leadership. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Kozleski, E. B., Thorius, K. K., & Smith, A. (2014). Theorizing systemic reform in urban schools. In E. B. Kozleski & K. K. Thorius (Eds.), Ability, equity, and culture: Sustaining inclusive urban education reform (pp. 11-35). New York: Teachers College Press.

Waitoller, F. R. & Kozleski, E. B. (2013). Working in boundary practices: Identity development and learning in partnerships for inclusive education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 31, 35-45.


Cynthia’s Bio

Dr. Cynthia Mruczek has been an educator for 18 years. She has worked in urban settings as a special and general educator, as well as an instructional coach, serving students from grades three through high school. Her doctoral work was centered on teacher learning and its impact on students of color in urban classrooms. Currently, Dr. Mruczek is currently an Instructor in the Special Education Department at University of Kansas. Her research and consultative work focuses primarily on teacher learning related to issues of equity in the classroom. She has partnered with schools across the country on various topics, including: culturally responsive pedagogy and classrooms, Culturally Responsive Cognitive Coaching and leadership, and building positive teacher/student relationships, among others. Additionally, Dr. Mruczek has partnered with ASU and USAID in providing support for international teacher educators from India and Africa in the area of gender equity in schools. Dr. Mruczek has a strong passion for equity and social justice, which drives her research and partnerships.


From “Manual Typewriter Operator” to “Graduate Online Programs Director…” The Journey from a Technological Perspective

Electronic Typewriter_Bashinski Blog

By Susan M. Bashinski, Ed.D.

My career began as pre-service special education teacher in the 1970s. I took lecture notes on paper. I used a manual typewriter to prepare class assignments. I fed punched cards into the campus mainframe computer to run statistics. And no, this really wasn’t more than 100 years ago!  By the time I reached my Master’s degree program, I had moved on to my first personal computer (really only an electronic word processor), but in my mind I had joined the technology revolution. When I purchased an Apple IIc computer my fate was sealed (I just didn’t realize it at the time….)

As I look back on my lengthy career in special education, I see several key events that challenged me and forced me well beyond the limits of my technological comfort zone.  Fortunately, the unimaginable change in the availability of communication media, new online learning tools and associated research shaped the skills I now need to use in my daily practice as a teacher educator.  I could never have guessed, nor honestly, even believed, that technology would become such a central thread in my work.

Communication development and augmentative communication (AAC) have remained my passion ever since I began my doctoral studies in special education at The University of Kansas (KU) in 1992. My first experience with “high AAC technology” involved the ECHO communicator. This voice output variation required me to actually open the body of the computer and install an adaptive firmware card.  Who, at that point, could ever have even imagined the technological capabilities of the iPad?  It took me a while to “see” the broader technology in education picture.

I taught the augmentative and alternative communication class for the KU Department of Special Education (SPED) during my doctoral studies and for several years thereafter.  For the entirety of these 16 years I delivered the class on campus—face-to-face with the graduate students enrolled.  In my last year of employment at KU, the University issued an announcement, encouraging faculty campus-wide to apply to participate in training on how to effectively transition a face-to-face class to an online delivery format. I believed that KU SPED’s AAC course was a great candidate for this transformation, and so I applied.

I was accepted as a member of the first Lawrence-campus cohort—which consisted of eight to ten faculty members.  Our small, innovative group spent one full week in day-long sessions learning Blackboard technology in the basement of Anschutz.  I felt as if I had entered a foreign world populated with an entirely different array of variables…!  I was overwhelmed initially. Though I was confident in my ability to teach, I found it incredibly difficult to figure out how to teach in this whole new context.  Fortunately, however, I stayed the course.

Apple IIc_Bashinski Blog

Let me fast forward now…to the present.  For the past three years I have worked as the director of graduate programs in the Department of Education at Missouri Western State University—where 100% of our graduate offerings are delivered online.  I am an individual who spent the vast majority of her career teaching in traditional face-to-face public school and university settings.  Now, I very rarely set foot in the same physical space as my students.  What a significant evolution my instructional practice has undergone in the last decade!

Delivering online courses and teaching entirely through this new distance model presents many challenges for veteran faculty members, such as myself.  Ever-present is the unchangeable fact that I (like many others) am now required to provide content, course activities, and feedback in a format different from anything I ever experienced as a student.  These challenges are exponentially magnified by the reality that the vast majority of today’s students grow up with connectivity. They enter the learning context already incredibly comfortable with current technology and the online environment.

Learners in the twenty-first century have been Web consumers for much of their lives, and are now demanding online instruction that supports participation and interaction. They want learning experiences that are social and that will connect them with their peers (West & West, as cited in Conrad & Donaldson, 2011, p. 1).

The current, extant literature base regarding distance education provides fairly extensive insights on several key challenges online course delivery presents. Some of the challenges this context generates for veteran faculty members include: ways in which to structure communication with students, ongoing technological advances, methods to promote genuine student engagement and maintain integrity in online coursework, professional development needs, and strategies to build a genuine online learning community. I raise these here to ideally promote discussion and to find at least partial answers to some of these needs.

Veteran faculty need guidance around questions as straightforward as how to structure their own personal availability? Will this schedule apply only Monday through Friday?  What is the ideal response rate for emails, questions, and grading of assignments?  Challenges relative to how to communicate with online students range from simple questions, such as how best to inform students to structure and submit their assignments for online grading, to how to determine the scope of information they will require? How much is too much? What should go in the syllabus? What should be detailed in each online page?  A well-respected and very experienced university faculty member advised me as follows,

Give far more information than you think anyone in their right mind would ever want to know (S. Steinweg, personal communication, August 2009).

My personal experience has led me to some very effective strategies. For example, embed a hidden word (e.g., “hippopotamus”) in the middle of a teacher-made video students are requested to review; attach a letter to an email, prior to the semester’s opening to all students registered for an online course, and request students send an email to verify their receipt of the information; include virtual office hours in a course syllabus; and post rules of “netiquette” for the course. I have found the 10 Principles of Effective Online Teaching, compiled from a series of columns in DISTANCE Education Reports “Between the Clicks” column, to be a succinct compilation of the core behaviors one needs to develop to become a successful online instructor (Hill, n.d.a).  Some of the most essential elements I derived from this include: establish patterns for all course activities—and be consistent, think before writing, plan for the unplanned, and try to anticipate anything that might possibly “go wrong” (i.e., employ proactive practices)  (Hill, n.d.a).  My personal interpretation of the advice to be proactive involves extensive pre-planning and anticipation in order to avoid receiving 200+ emails from students every day!

Technology questions arise in regard to both hardware and software applications too. They range from simple questions such as how, where and from whom students can get help when needed, to which specific technology options are best-suited to delivery of a particular type of content.  Options for student use of a university’s library and reference resources must also be clarified before a course begins.  Personally, I struggle with the stress and anxiety I feel each and every time I am presented with a new piece of technology!  How can I master this? What do I need to know? What do I do if the technology goes down?  I believe sharing contingency plans with students is also an essential element of effective online teaching.

The importance of genuine student engagement in the online learning environment has been highlighted in research over the last decade (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011; Woo & Reeves, 2007).  Students neither want nor deserve to be presented with a digital correspondence course; their learning will not be maximized just listening to an online lecture.  One of an online instructor’s primary responsibilities is to establish a path that will guide students to actively engage with the content being presented.  It is the faculty member’s responsibility to create course materials in multiple media formats (Wang, 2012).  The most effective strategy I have found to meet this challenge is to include mandatory participation in synchronous video sessions, which are graded.  Through Doodle polling, students determine the exact schedule for such meetings, and receive grades for their involvement in these sessions.  Engaging students through synchronous methods is strongly supported through an aggregation of articles compiled from the ONLINE CL@SSROOM: Ideas for Effective Online Instruction (Bart, 2012).

Engaged learning does not simply happen.  It requires ‘architectural engineering’ by the instructor (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011, p.14).

Closely related to the need to facilitate active student engagement is the challenge of building a genuine community online.  Though I am never in the same room with the graduate students in the classes I teach, nor are the students in the same room with one another, we do see each other.  In learning easy-to-use platforms like Zoom (founded in 2011), my students and I have the opportunity to engage in real-time video conferencing. We hold critical discussions, students present materials they have developed to one another and complete peer evaluations of others’ completed work. Zoom also offers the instructor the option of recording a session for later viewing by a student, as needed.

Students in Missouri Western State University’s graduate online programs are incredibly enthusiastic about the opportunities technology like Zoom offers for real-time, meaningful collaboration. These kinds of platforms enable the auditory and visual, synchronous experiences of genuine community membership. Samples of video testimonials, in which students share overwhelming support for synchronous video meetings, can be found here.

Integrity concerns in online coursework are directly associated with the instructor (e.g., what resources may be used without violating copyright?) and with students and the work they submit (e.g., who actually wrote the research paper that was turned in?).  The challenge of academic dishonesty existed long before the online instructional environment first emerged. The online environment does, however, present distance instructors with a unique set of challenges, different from those encountered in traditional course delivery.  In a compilation of nine articles from DISTANCE Education Report (Hill, 2010), the editor offers 91 Ways to Maintain Academic Integrity in Online Courses, which are presented in four primary categories (1) the “virtue” approach – motivate students to not be tempted to cheat (2) the “policing” approach – enforce consequences for those students who are caught cheating (3) the “prevention” approach – reduce both the pressures and opportunities for students to cheat, and (4) suggestions for inclusion in an online course syllabus.

The enormous need for professional development for university faculty, particularly for veteran, senior faculty members, brings this discussion full circle.  As noted previously, delivering courses entirely through a distance model presents many, many challenges such as mastering the technology itself to transitioning sound pedagogical theory and practice to the online environment, or managing course structure and communication, and maintaining rigor in a distance course (Lorenzetti, n.d.).  Effective, durable training for faculty members requires planning, pooling of resources, and most importantly providing on-going support for online instructors.

One of the many lessons learned from the early years of distance education is the fact that you cannot simply pluck an instructor out of the classroom, plug (her) into an online course, and expect (her) to be effective in this new….medium (Hill, n.d.b, p. 1).


Bart, M. (Ed.) (2012, February). Faculty focus special report: Online student engagement tools and strategies.  Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/FF-Online-Student-Engagement-Report.pdf

Conrad, R-M., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ:  Wiley, Jossey-Bass.

Hill, C. (Ed.) (2010, May). Faculty focus special report: Promoting academic integrity in online education. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/promoting-academic-integrity-in-online-edu2.pdf

Hill, C. (Ed.) (n.d.a.). Faculty focus special report: 10 principles of effective online teaching—Best practices in distance education. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/10-Principles-of-Effective-Online-Teaching.pdf

Hill, C. (Ed.) (n.d.b.). Faculty focus special report:  Faculty development in distance education—Issues, trends, and tips. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/FacultyDev-in-DistanceEd1.pdf

Lorenzetti, J. P. (n.d.). Four steps to just-in-time faculty training.  Faculty focus special report:  Faculty development in distance education—Issues, trends, and tips. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/FacultyDev-in-DistanceEd1.pdf

Wang, H. (2012, February). Engage online learners with technology: A free tool kit. Faculty focus special report:  Faculty development in distance education—Issues, trends, and tips. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/FacultyDev-in-DistanceEd1.pdf

Woo, Y., & Reeves, T. C. (2007). Meaningful interaction in web-based learning: A social constructivist interpretation. The Internet and Higher Education, 10(1), 15-25.

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