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|Chelmsford Student Demographics|
|10% of all students receive free or reduced meals|
|15% receive special education services|
|2% are English Language Learners|
|3.2% African American|
Chelmsford Public Schools is a small suburban school district in northeastern Massachusetts.
Universal Design for Learning was introduced to the Chelmsford Public School District (CPSD) four years ago after the Director of Student Services and several teachers from the district attended a UDL workshop and “were hooked.” They felt that UDL was what they needed to reach all students, both those performing at the top and the bottom of the scale. This core group of educators ignited the enthusiasm of the whole district. The district decided to start small and over the next four years invested time and resources to support educators to learn about and implement UDL.
District leaders in Chelmsford believed that one of the biggest challenges to scaling up UDL in the district was to make sure there was integration with state and district initiatives requirements: Race to the Top, Common Core State Standards, and new accountability and assessments. They understood that UDL would not be successful if it was just one more initiative or requirement in their district and that aligning these initiatives with UDL would strengthen UDL implementation. So as they developed their five-year strategic plan they incorporated UDL principles into the district goals to support higher achievement of academic goals for all students. With this approach, UDL is not an add-on but a framework for decision-making. The plan created structures needed to embrace UDL authentically by providing professional development time for teachers to develop lesson plans and assessments, technology resources to integrate UDL cohesively, and vehicles to develop curriculum. In this way UDL is incorporated into school improvement plans, department goals, teacher practice, and instructional goals.
According to Dr. Kristen Rodriguez, Assistant Superintendent of Chelmsford Public School District, collaboration between educators is a primary and effective means of supporting UDL in her district. “We believe that our most important resource is our professional staff and their ability to learn from each other.” UDL started in the district with a small cohort of enthusiastic teachers. The administration listened to educator concerns and developed these strategies and structures to support them: 1) after-school time was found for them to work together, 2) the groundwork for professional learning communities (PLCs) was laid by sending educators to PLC workshops, 3) the district partnered with three other local districts that had also taken UDL workshops to share ideas, successes and challenges. They encouraged educators to demonstrate their work through videos, created a secure online place to share lesson plans, and gave them time to develop curriculum together.
There were other structures within the district that supported UDL implementation, such as infusing UDL in their co-teaching model. They found that when general education teachers worked together as co-teachers with special educators, there was an enriched level of instruction and their data indicate improvement of student scores as a result.
The mentoring system in CPS is another successful approach to increasing educator knowledge and practice of UDL. Chelmsford has been integrating UDL into their mentoring practices for several years. The original cadre of educators worked within the mentoring system to create videotapes and practice lessons and presented demonstrations and workshops throughout the district. They also understand that UDL looks different in every classroom. This year they implemented a series called “UDL Make and Take” to support teachers' building UDL lessons together.
Dr. Rodriguez exclaims “UDL has changed teachers’ pedagogical practices altogether, and although it takes them many more hours to plan and prepare their lessons using this approach, they have found that it has been so much more successful that they do not have the need to re-teach skills.”
Another approach Chelmsford is taking in the middle schools is integrating UDL principles with literacy across the curriculum, not just in English language arts classes. They have successfully employed a “Train the trainer model” as part of the UDL implementation project. Teachers in the project developed a professional development module to scale and sustain innovative UDL practices.
Dr. Katie Novak, a seventh grade English Language Arts teacher and one of the original UDL cohorts suggests, “Teachers need to start small, shoot to incorporate at least one UDL lesson a week. You just have to start. At first it’s hard, but if you do it well once and then evaluate the students work you’ll see the payoff. My students’ scores have risen; my students really love it. You have a great reputation with the parents and the administrators leave you alone because you get results.”
Another strategy that Dr. Novak uses in her classroom is to engage her students as learning partners. She has created lessons to teach her students the principles of UDL. She has found that when students understand the principles of UDL they become more active in instructional decisions and are invested in what they need to do to become better learners or expert learners. Dr. Novak even has her students remind her to integrate the UDL guidelines in more of her instruction and the classroom environment.
During data evaluation CPS found that a combination of UDL, co-teaching and tiered instruction were beneficial in reducing the proficiency gap for all groups by one half. The district used data collected to identify root causes of proficiency gaps and created a logic model to identify “smart” goals, to create bridges and to define strategies and action steps to attain those goals. According to Dr. Rodriguez, “We have evaluated the success of students each year using existing data like district benchmarks and nationally normed assessments and found that since the cohorts starting incorporating UDL in their classrooms, there has been student improvement in all the participating UDL classrooms.” This type of data motivates teachers to continue to develop UDL lessons and share their success with the whole community and parents are thrilled by their children’s success.
Technology has been an interesting challenge for Chelmsford. Four years ago there was a lack of technology infrastructure and equipment, says Dr. Rodriguez. This was both an opportunity and a challenge for them. A common misconception about UDL is that it cannot be practiced without technology. The truth is that technology greatly enhances the integration of UDL in classrooms, but using the UDL guidelines to plan lessons, present instruction and assess students is absolutely possible without technology. To illustrate this point, a teacher cohort developed a ten-part “Make and Take” course where participants create UDL lessons that do not require technology. The focus is on deep understanding of the UDL principles and guidelines.
Of course, having a robust technology environment enriches opportunities for access, engagement and flexibility, so as part of the district’s five-year strategic development plan the administration and technology department teamed up to determine infrastructure upgrades and consider capital acquisitions with UDL in mind. The town of Chelmsford has also been involved and supportive with matching funding for 21st century classrooms.
UDL Implementation: A Tale of Four Districts is the story of four school districts taking the journey into the UDL implementation process.
Last Updated: 03/16/2013