Is Inclusion Possible for Students with Disabilities in Hamilton County?

Chattanooga Inclusive Ed recently provided a requested white paper to Chattanooga 2.0 outlining current deficiencies in inclusive best practices in the Hamilton County Department of Education, a summary of evidence on the benefits of inclusion for children with and without exceptional needs, and concrete recommendations for reform. Here’s an excerpt from the white paper on how reforms for inclusive education have been successfully implemented in Metro Nashville public schools — a district larger, more urban and on average poorer than our own. If Metro Nashville can do it, surely we can too!

Several years ago, leaders in Metro Nashville Public Schools realized they had a serious problem with inclusion. In fact, Metro Nashville ranked last among Local Education Agencies (LEAs) according to the state’s Indicator 5 measures of inclusion. Over the past several years, Metro Nashville has eliminated cluster sites and self-contained classrooms,[1] and students with special needs now attend either their home-zone school or their school of choice. Except for students with certain impactful disabilities requiring external placement, all students with disabilities have a general education placement and access to the general education curriculum. Ongoing professional development, collaboration, and transparency have become hallmarks of the system.  Since this transition, Metro Nashville has seen the achievement gap between students with/without disabilities begin to close. They simultaneously addressed their problem with discrepant rates of suspensions/expulsions of children with disabilities. These changes were implemented by reallocating but not adding special education teachers, who now participate as “co-teachers” in general education classrooms. Metro Nashville did invest in more classroom paraprofessionals as part of this transition (Villa, Thousand, & Nevin, 2013). The Metro Nashville LEA is larger, more urban, and on average poorer than Hamilton Co., which suggests similar changes can be implemented successfully here.  Additionally, Metro Nashville gave more direct control of special education budgeting to its principals using Student-based Budgeting (SBB), allocating dollars instead of staff to schools. For example, in 2015, Metro Nashville gave schools $4,250 for each student, plus additional dollars per student based on (a) grade level, (b) prior academic performance, (c) English learner status, and (d) exceptional education status (Metro Nashville Public Schools, 2016). A collaboration of each school’s general and special education staff and administrators then mapped out the following year’s schedule and supports for each student with exceptional needs, and schools made their own staff adjustments based on student mapping results and teacher input. Metro Nashville administrators indicated they have decreased the achievement gap between special education and regular education students from 40% to 20%.[2] In 2016, one Metro Nashville student was the system’s first valedictorian with a diagnosis of autism.

Read the Full White Paper Here: White Paper on Inclusive Education, “A Model for the Education of Children with Exceptional Needs and their Peers: Evidence-based Inclusive Education for Chattanooga & Hamilton County,” by Dave Buck, Ph.D., Cale Horne, Ph.D., and Luronda Jennings, M.Ed. 

Plan to join Cale Horne at LifeLine’s first fall support group meeting on the last Monday in August to learn more about Chattanooga Inclusive Ed, our vision for inclusion in Hamilton County Schools, and learn what roles you might play in its development.  You can also find more at  You can also join the Inclusive Ed Working Group on Facebook.

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