New federal awards to SWIFT Education Center will fund projects that move schools from inclusion to rightful presence

SWIFT Education Center, within the Life Span Institute at the University of Kansas, has received two federal awards for a total of $13 million to support educational systems in transforming their policies and practices to create schools where students have the resources and sense of belonging that they need to thrive.

Students work together on a project in a SWIFT partner school.The first award, a $10 million, five-year cooperative agreement funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, will launch the National Center on Inclusion Toward Rightful Presence. Amy McCart, research professor and co-director of SWIFT, is the primary investigator for the grant and will lead the new center.

McCart said that a guiding principle of the new center will be to partner with local and state education agencies across the nation to support educators and their students as they move beyond inclusion, or physical presence, in schools and classrooms, to co-created systemic conditions for rightful presence, where students have true belonging. 

“For too long, students with disabilities have been treated like guests in their schools, asking to be included,” McCart said. “This groundbreaking work will start with the presumption that the school belongs to students who have been left on the margins. SWIFT will work with educators to end policy and practice barriers that lead to disenfranchisement and replace them with systemic change for equity.”

This work will focus on students who receive intensive support to achieve at-grade-level or alternate-grade-level standards. This includes students who identify with autism, intellectual disability, deaf/blind, traumatic brain injury and multiple disabilities. McCart said that the center will demonstrate the effectiveness of this transformational process in up to 32 schools in four states, as well as provide specific technical assistance to other education agencies as needed.

The second award is a research grant funded through the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education to develop “Resources Aligned and Integrated for Student Equity,” or RAISE. Educators will use RAISE to make instruction and support decisions for students with complex learning situations. Principal investigator Jeong Hoon Choi, assistant research professor and associate director of research and evaluation at SWIFT, will lead the $3 million, four-year grant.

The project will partner with 18 grade schools, kindergarten through fifth grade, in a single school district to validate RAISE as a decision-making process for students with or at risk for disabilities because of conditions exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. SWIFT’s National Center on Inclusion Toward Rightful Presence will use RAISE in its work with schools as well.

“As school systems adjust to meet the needs of students resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important that we continue to think about students who benefit from the most complex support,” Choi said. “This project will allow us the opportunity to empirically investigate how our data-informed instructional decision processes can best support school staff to match available resources to ensure students thrive in general education.”

McCart added that the two awards offer an opportunity to influence education in ways that build on research and transform school environments for the benefit of students in ways that will have widespread positive influence. 

“With the collective imperative to build equity and join justice, SWIFT is at the ready to support their partners in this work,” she said.

Photo: Students work together on a project in a SWIFT partner school. Credit: Dan Habib.