A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Inclusion in every way
The power of ‘yes’ has transformed inclusion in Murrieta Valley USD
By Ward Andrus | March | April 2024
Let’s be real — the work of inclusion can be daunting and slow to accomplish. At times, it feels like an impossible task to have students with disabilities be fully engaged in our academic programs and school activities. And the reason is, well … in education, it has always been that way.
Inclusion and the law
In the early days of public education, students with special needs were simply not included. They were not allowed to attend public school because they simply could not keep up with all the other students. Over time students and their parents advocated for additional help and support. It wasn’t until 1975 that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed by the federal government, opening the door for students with disabilities. The law simply began the process of public schools being required to provide educational experiences in public schools for all students with disabilities. However, it took generations and continues to take time for people to understand the needs of students and what a least restrictive environment looks like and then change systems.
According to Sherry L. Hicks-Monroe, special education evolved in three phases: “... relative isolation, integration and inclusion. The relative isolation phase consisted of students being denied access to public schools or permitted only to attend in isolated settings. This phase in education was the norm before 1970. The integration phase, which started in the mid ’70s, included mainstreaming students with disabilities in the general education programs when appropriate primarily for socialization. In the mid-1980s, the inclusion phase began. This phase also placed students with disabilities in the general education environment, but unlike the integration phase, the inclusion phase assumed that these students belonged in the general education setting, for empowerment, self-determination and to better prepare students for the highest degree of independence possible.
“The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that a continuum of placement options be available to meet the needs of students with disabilities. The law also requires that: ‘to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities ... are educated with children who are not disabled, and that special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be attained satisfactorily.’ IDEA Sec. 612 (5) (B).”
Even though IDEA requires us to place students with disabilities with general education peers to the greatest extent possible, it is still very subjective. So, what is getting in the way? The answer is simple: educators are.
The power of ‘yes’
Before I began as the new superintendent of Murrieta Valley Unified School District in 2022, I received an email from retiring superintendent Pat Kelley about the most recent Special Olympics Track and Field event. I was delighted to see how my new district had embraced students with disabilities; however, I had no idea how far the district had really come. With over 27 years of experience, I had never seen what inclusion can really look like until I came to Murrieta Valley. The best news: This is all replicable. Any school or district can do this; it is a choice about what you believe and what you will do.
When educators talk about inclusion of students with disabilities into general education, there is usually talk of the amount of time spent in general education classes, maybe their involvement in some activities, and if you are lucky, an inclusive adaptive PE class. But what I discovered in Murrieta is that the educational community has embraced the concept of inclusion on many levels, and now that I am part of it, I have come to understand how inclusion of students with disabilities can transform a district’s culture and best serve students. Inclusion to us is peer mentoring, co-taught secondary classes, push-in participation, unified classes, unified leadership, unified sports and more.
I asked a few of my teachers what it took to get our efforts going. One teacher responded with the following:
“I think the most impactful thing that has allowed us to expand inclusion is a simple ‘yes.’ I worked for five years to bring Inclusive Peer Mentoring to the district before I got that first yes. It took a yes from a site administrator to agree to implementing the program. It took a yes from the district administration to allow us to write the course proposal. A yes from the board to approve the course. A yes from a single mentor (general education student) to take the class. A yes from a case carrier (special education teacher) to bring the program to their students. A yes from a parent of a student with disabilities to allow a peer to support them. A yes from a general education teacher to open their door to our Peer Mentor program. Each yes was so small and yet so significant. Just one ‘no’ is what deterred us for so long.” — Brandi Heise, high school teacher
Heise’s story really says it all. A series of small “yeses” is what allows inclusion to really happen, and just one “no” can stifle progress to a snail’s pace. In Murrieta, and really in districts throughout California, there are examples of inclusion on a small scale. With a nudge and a yes from leaders, peers or parents, the effort will grow. Here are examples of what our team has done since the first yes.
Unified Sports

With the power of a yes, Unified Sports were born. A classroom teacher, Jason Cantu, wanted his special day class students to have more friends. He took some board games out to the picnic tables at lunch and invited leadership students from the ASB to play with his students. From there, a “yes” from the principal took board games to a flag-football game in the stadium with 50 percent athletes (students with disabilities) and 50 peers (general ed students) competing against each other. From there, Unified Sports grew, and one high school became three, and three became six, and now, two districts are playing games six times a year. Today, each high school from Murrieta Valley USD and Temecula Valley USD hosts Unified events. Students play basketball, soccer, flag-football, softball, bocce ball, and run track and field. What do participants and spectators see? They see and feel love. It gets better — this effort spread to our four middle schools, and now each school hosts an event for the three other schools in the same format as the high school playing flag-football, basketball, soccer, and track and field with the same spirit of inclusion.
Gloriously, this effort is not contained to secondary schools. Last fall, I was visiting an elementary school and witnessed Unified Activities started by a speech and language pathologist and her colleagues. Unified Activities at that particular school was led by fourth and fifth grade special day class students, known as ambassadors, leading play with 4-year-old transitional kindergarten students once a week. They had a bubble station, large foam blocks to stack, clay to mold and more. These older students were still learning their own social skills, but now are tasked with teaching younger students how to share and take turns. In this model, all were learning as they played together with mutual respect and kindness.
Unified Sports served as a model and propelled the district to normalize inclusion. Athletics is so visible and the effectiveness so apparent you can’t help but realize the power of inclusion. The culture of our schools began to shift.
Unified Sports across the district has brought so many students and adults together on such a large scale. At any given event there are more than a thousand participants, spectators and volunteers. Each event has improved over time and along with the execution of the games, so has collaborative learning and meaningful relationships. The purpose and value of inclusion is on immediate display at all the games. The benefit is so obvious, and often leaves us wondering, what else can we do? Peer Mentoring Unified Sports served as a model and propelled the district to normalize inclusion. Athletics is so visible and the effectiveness so apparent you can’t help but realize the power of inclusion. The culture of our schools began to shift. As aforementioned, Vista Murrieta High School teacher Brandi Heise developed a Peer Mentoring program called Bronco Buddies after a single “yes.” This program pairs a student with a disability with a general education peer. This peer attends one of the students’ classes during their day and acts as a one-on-one aide. Now, more than before, students with disabilities are able to access more classes. These pairs of students are found in ASL classes, culinary arts, biology, ceramics, photography and more. We are learning that students with disabilities often respond better to their peers than to an adult aide. Parents of students with disabilities have noted how these classmates have developed long-lasting friendships past high school graduation. Parents of peers have reported that their teens are more empathetic to others. Ava Dittmar, a Bronco Buddy, stated: “We learn a sense of awareness and emotional connection to those around us. Overall, inclusive education helps greatly with both sets of students … I don’t regret any second of becoming a peer mentor because it has opened my eyes to so many new things. I personally think that I grew more compassionate, respectful and educated after helping students with disabilities.” Co-teaching and unified classrooms Co-teaching is not a new concept and has been around for decades. A special education teacher is paired up with a general education teacher to work together in a combined class. Without the right conditions and support, this is doomed to fail. In Murrieta, the conditions improved and so did the support. It is still very challenging and takes considerable effort. Since our initial efforts, we have expanded our offerings to 28 sections of co-taught classes in core subjects across seven secondary schools. Teachers are recommended and brought together to explore the potential of co-teaching. By contract, these teachers are provided with additional preparation time. The additional planning time is essential to their success. The cultural shift in the district because of Unified Activities has made daily inclusion widely acceptable to staff and students. Hence, being in a class with typical peers and a student with a disability is just as normal as playing flag football in Unified Sports. Opportunities abound with co-taught courses. Teachers and principals have sought additional opportunities to bring students together. The first was Unified PE, which is offered at all secondary schools. We no longer offer a stand-alone adaptive PE course, but rather Unified PE. Students with physical disabilities who need adaptive PE are now in class with typical peers. General education students model and support physical activity. Eventually there is more support and friendship than physical performance. This same model works in leadership classes. In Unified Leadership, students with disabilities plan and carry out our various activities with their general education peers. They conduct the events alongside leadership classes such as ASB, Senate, PLUS and Link Crew. The concept of unified classes has spread to additional electives such as art and dance. Here again, students with disabilities are fully included in other courses with general education peers. In their classes there is little if any support from special education teachers or aides. It is all done with a teacher and general education students who see the benefit and potential. They simply give it a try! Acceptance Admittedly, I did not fully understand what inclusion could be until I came to Murrieta and was shown the way. I understand the technical meaning, and what could be if adults were willing to work together. But it was not until I stood on the fields and in the classrooms with my colleagues and students that I really felt what inclusion could be. Inclusion is part of everyday school life in Murrieta. In December 2023, our inclusion efforts were recognized with a Golden Bell Award from the California School Boards Association for Equity and Access. Though it is wonderful to be recognized by the association, it is more important for parents of students to recognize the value of inclusion. At a middle school Unified flag football event last fall, I spoke to the parents of a peer (general education student). I asked, “How has your child’s participation in Unified Sports changed them?” Both the parents and grandparents seated nearby simply said, “He is not the same kid. He is so caring, patient and kind.” And that was said of their middle school student who plays alongside his new friends. A parent of a special needs student said, “My daughter’s friendship with her Bronco Buddy has changed her life forever. Even a few years after graduation, they still meet up and talk.”
Verna Myers says it well about including others: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” And that is where our inclusion efforts are taking us — to accept all students as equals, that all students are general education students first. References Polloway, Edward A., Smith, J. David, Patton, James R., and Smith, Tom E. C. (1996). Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. Division on Autism and Developmental Disabilities. Vol. 31, No. 9, pp. 3-12. Hicks, Sherry L. (2011). A Review of Research on the Educational Benefits of the Inclusive Model of Education for Special Education Students. JAASEP Winter 2011. Ward Andrus, Ed.D., is the superintendent of Murrieta Valley Unified School District.