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Archive for the ‘Special Needs Education’ Category

Public School System - Not what I'm paying for

 

Dear Hon. Minister Browne,

 

By the time you read this letter you would have spent over three hundred days in office. As I write this letter I would have lived (still living) with a child on the autism spectrum for over twelve years.  I am a mom and I am an advocate – And with this experience in mind I wanted to share some advice with you on an issue that you’ve been disturbingly silent on.

Let me say right off the bat that what I’m calling for is common-sense, clarity and planning with some urgency, with regards to the restructuring of special education in Antigua & Barbuda – Actually the restructuring of the educational system period. Where the child, as student, is at the center of reform, rather than a variety of external factors or where adults and their roles are central.  Intentional restructuring I’m speaking of – One that recognizes that the student is the producer of educational results.

 

Is there any disappointment on your end that your Ministry has been unable to clearly articulate its plan for special education? Are you ok with the fact that more and more of our special needs children are either aging-out or dropping out of school? They’re unemployed; or if they’re paid, very few have a fulltime/fulfilling job/opportunities. This is not a rousing support of success and it surely does not support the status quo. Quite the contrary, it says we need to change what we’re doing. Frankly speaking, another three hundred days is too long of a wait to hear about what that change will involve.

 

So, in dealing with the future… I recommend humility. Just give up on making any spectacular claims. I’m way past being impressed. Those short term attempts at improving the provision of special education have been woefully inadequate; short-sighted at best, at worst…? But alas, there are still those pretentious bureaucrats in your department who get a real thrill out of assuming that their job is to spin policy (whether these policies work or not), entertain the public with interviews using lofty words, somehow securing added status. I’m sure something about this must feel good. It has to, since I’ve seen this tactic deployed so often. What you need to do is to develop policies that work. Policies developed through a collaborative process.

 

So we don’t have any money… I get it – Loud and clear. It’s pretty much a universal position for public schools; the fact that they’re underfunded – But I refuse to continue to accept that as an acceptable excuse. I often wonder why no one ever talks more about using the funding we have smarter. How about making the Special Education course which is offered to teachers in training, mandatory? For some reason there are those who think that special education is this stand-alone concept. It isn’t. Any “inclusion” policy is doomed without the support of the general teacher. And by the way this should not be voluntary either. These teachers should be required to do what is appropriate. Parents should not have to beg and plead with teachers and principals to take our children in the class. You cannot begin this process without the adequate preparation of the general teacher. They must know how to teach a diverse class. All our children deserve a fully-prepared teacher for every day of their educational careers. Yet we have made little progress with our efforts to provide training to the general teacher for work with special needs children. So what we have now is outright refusal by many to participate in the process. And though we’re often told by principals, teachers and education officials that they want parental involvement and that much of your ultimate success rests on our willingness to support your efforts, it is not always clear that those attempts to involve us (parents) are genuine. So, we’re the best, once we’re responding to your needs – Show up to your meetings – BUT – offer any real suggestions regarding educational plans. Hold up! Wait a minute… A lot of folks must be thanking God often for the fall-back excuse of blaming a child’s success on the lack of parental support.

 

I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that this is a human right, the right to a free, appropriate public education, which our children are being denied. What is happening amounts to discrimination – structural discrimination, which is the worst kind. Inequalities in education and society do not appear out of thin air. They show up when we don’t provide the foundational competencies needed to improve later learning. And whether you think this or not – by your inaction you continue to participate in denying them that right.

While I’m on this topic of funding can you tell us once and for all, what amount of funding is provided for students with disabilities in mainstream schools? What is such funding for? How such funding is allocated? So you don’t have enough… Ok, I get it. Tell us how you utilize what you have.

The least restrictive environment – Isn’t that our principle? This means children are removed from the general classroom only when their needs cannot be met in this environment. How many of your schools, if examined, can say that they’ve stayed true to this principle. Many of the placement decisions we make have very little to do with the educational need of the children. We know it, we put up with it, because in many ways it makes our lives easier. And before the teacher’s union activate their emergency plan… Let me just say that the Ministry of Education should be investing in more training – Consistent in-service teacher development programs. We need to bring teacher support closer – into the classrooms, where teachers work and where these interventions have real meaning and application. The odd workshop or information session is no longer adequate. And cramming a boatload of workshops into two weeks of summer won’t cut it either. It is simply not enough time to prepare anyone, no matter how intelligent or dedicated they are. As a matter of fact it just further exacerbates the problem – with the teachers themselves now representing one more inequality in our education system, further denying our children equitable educational opportunities.

 

Let’s talk about scholarships. Tell young people that there is no more noble profession than teaching, and that having qualified teachers in special education is a priority BUT we’re not just going to say it is, we are going to take steps to reform special education in the public school system. Practically speaking, you will be their boss and if you know a core part of your business is failing miserably and you do nothing about it, then why would anyone want to work in that department. Others will get excited about it IF YOU ARE, they will be committed to it IF YOU ARE; accept responsibility for it IF YOU DO. But Minister Browne… You must be able to articulate your plan. Say what the big picture is. And please, please, don’t say it’s building a school, or adding classrooms to Adele School. That just cannot be THE plan.

 

Speaking of which, access to tertiary education is not under threat. Don’t get me wrong… I’m not for one minute saying that it’s not important. All I’m saying is that right now, it is (access that is) not under threat. However, what I think is being threatened though, is early childhood and primary education, which you don’t hear much about. Who are we expecting to go to this University of Antigua & Barbuda I keep hearing about? Oh yes… Forgot I was talking about special education here and that the expectation is that those students will not make it to university. What a shame we make those determinations when our children walk into the classroom at three and five years old. I have to tell you Minister… This rush to build a university is giving off some serious legacy vibes. I’m not saying that it’s all about your legacy. I’m just saying that it looks like it. But you see, there’s something about legacy… And that is not to think about it. Try not to think too much about about how folks will remember you in the future. Just say what you’re going to do – Actually do it – Do it now, when it will make a difference in people’s lives. Trust me, the legacy will follow.

 

This haphazard enrollment of special needs students in some select (perhaps – who knows – I haven’t come across anyone who has any rationale on how these schools were selected) schools look like a publicity stunt. However, for the sake of this “one-sided” discussion let’s just say there was a plan. Can someone please tell us then, why these children were sent into already overcrowded schools? How these schools were selected? Why no accommodations were made for these students who were enrolled in these schools – not by chance but by purposeful planning? Is this a pilot program? Are we collecting any data to show what’s working, what’s not – How these students are progressing? Again, I’m not saying it was a publicity stunt. I’m just saying that it sure looked like one – And such actions would not only be morally suspect; it would also be strategically short-sighted.

 

In dealing with the education stakeholders, my advice… Spend more time listening than talking. I know… It will be difficult, you’re in a lofty position now; but you need to respect the fact that those who work in schools know more than you or your bureaucrats about the everyday struggles of learners and teachers.  Don’t become so preoccupied with hearing your own voice you think you sound better than MJ (come on now) because you will spend your time trying to impress the Prime Minister (so that he reappoints you) and the people (so that they tolerate you) with gimmicks — those flashy, short-term, dramatic changes that anyone serious about educational reform will tell you are simply unsustainable. Haven’t realized that if we don’t do this part well then we’re on the road to failing our children?

So, the more you listen, the better you will perform.

Finally, Minister, as you lead what I think is one of the most precious assets of our country, our education system; I wanted to share one final piece of advice with you. I’m sure you’ll have some harsh thoughts about what I’ve written but let me suggest patience. You’re in a public position and will be criticized… Deal with it! Democracy is not more important to politicians than it is to the ordinary man who has to live with the effects of the policies or lack thereof set by them.

 

So I will tell you now – Don’t waste your time trying to find out anything about me, don’t announce any broad-based parent meeting unless you and your team are prepared to have serious dialog about the future of special education. Seriously, we’re all going to float away if we hear anymore “fluff”. Also, don’t go all “Chris Christie” on me because I’m being critical – because I see that as doing precisely the opposite of what you should be encouraging in the education system these days and that is critical thinking and community involvement – And wouldn’t that be a shame.

 

Sincerely,

Salma Crump  

My open letter to the Hon. Minister of Education, Dr. Jacqui Quinn-Leandro…

I’m saddened and distressed by the state of affairs with regards to special education in this country.

We hear “It’s a priority” so often and still nothing gets done so I’ve now become numb to the promises made. I guess one thing can be said – There’s been some consistency where this issue is concerned and that is, nothing gets done. How tragic.

This year I made a special effort to listen to the Hon. Minister of Education, Jacqui Quinn-Lenadro’s speech regarding the recent budget. At one point, the Minister expressed how painful it was for her to see an unfinished structure at the Antigua State College campus for such an extended period. Painful! It pains her to see an unfinished building – that I may add – she’s right, it should be finished – BUT – perhaps I missed this, but I’ve never heard the Minister sounding this pained when she talks about special need children and how they continue to be shortchanged by the education system. Children! Not blocks! People! Or is it just the parents who should feel this pain? Newsflash! We’re feeling it! Newsflash! We can’t take it anymore!

So, since we’re on the subject of pain. Here’s what pains me…

The way the authorities run to their back-up responses of arts and crafts, vocational when the subject of special education comes up. Arts and crafts/vocational, though good is not the be-all and end-all of our children. Are we as parents to assume that that’s what it means to you – And – that is the breadth of the experience they will have in the system?

I am saddened that you and too many others continue to apologize and make excuses for the lack of any real, and thoughtful plans to address the needs of these students – actions that continue to be disastrous for so many. Quit holding out the “Coming Soon” carrot stick! We’re not rabbits! After all, at what point should we get fed-up of hearing “We’re working on something” or “We’re looking at it”. So you’re looking at it, we’re looking for it and our children get absolutely nothing from it. Just great! Words don’t help our children. Good programs/policies that are enforced do.

Here is your record…

You started out by saying the Ministry of Education will be making special education a priority. Every time I think of this I remember a quote from Mahatma Gandhi which says; “Actions expresses priorities”. My interpretation of this is that people take action on the things they deem important. I guess in a sense the Ministry’s inaction has pushed me to keep fighting for my child’s (and others like him) educational rights. So I’m going to keep demanding, over and over and over again for better more meaningful change. “We don’t have enough money” is no longer acceptable or defensible for bad education policies and programs.

You then said that you will be setting up a diagnostic center: We’re still waiting for this to even start. By the way, should we be concerned by the track record of the new public library? In a Daily Observer article on November 19th, 2011 the Minister stated: “Our fine team at the Board of Education has just completed an estimate of the cost of converting the building (referring to a building on Nugent Ave.) into a functional child-friendly centre, and we have included this expenditure into the 2012 budget,” – What happened Minister? Ok… You missed the ball in 2012 and again in 2013 – But… Believe me folks it will happen in 2014! Give me a minute please because I’m gagging on this giant-sized pill I’m being fed now. I’ve said this before – But – year after year we hear of an education budget but it’s difficult to say whether there is any correlation between the amount spent on the education system and its ability to be effective in responding to diversity. So you don’t have enough? Let us see what you’re doing with what you have. It’s your responsibility to tell us.

A Special Education Council was put in place… Good move: An advisory council could potentially assist the Ministry with drafting policies/programs/plans/reviewing budgets and giving guidance (relating to special education) on how to put those plans into action. Where I think you went wrong: Instead of looking as far as the eye can see with regards to assembling a diverse group to sit on this council – You, looked outside your office door. That‘s the only conclusion I could arrive at to explain why you would elect a senior executive within the Ministry as the Chair of this council – Added to that the other members (with the exception of one) are all Ministry execs.

By all means, this is not an attack on the competencies of the individuals who sit on the council but they are Ministry staffers and are conflicted, therefore, in providing independent advice to you. The council is unlikely to recommend actions deemed unfavorable by you or criticize any decisions that have been made by the Ministry. Therefore you and your team cannot receive the objective advice needed in order to make intelligent decisions. This clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of the processes of thoughtful planning which the provision of special education services require.

More teachers have been trained in Special Education: This is absolutely great! But Minister, please explain why this benefit hasn’t trickled down to the point of making more of a difference for our children who are in the classrooms now. How do these new specialist teachers entering the system fit into the overall plan? What is the big picture? Is there a big picture?

The ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: The new political ping-pong – Politicians climbing over each other to see who can be the most politically correct and use the most buzz-words. To that I say; “How convenient.” We don’t address it for years then all of a sudden it shows up in a budget speech. Did we just find the conscience we lost? When Antigua signed on to this convention in 2007, put in place by the United Nations, were we doing it for the betterment of our citizens or was it just for show?

The Ministry has managed to do very little because many parents/advocates either can’t, won’t or don’t know how to challenge them. I have to be honest though, sometimes I feel like I’m being ignored to the point of exhaustion (didn’t know this was possible) within a system that is so inherently flawed that the authorities think nothing about being satisfied with the status quo. It’s embarrassing, the awful reputation our public schools have when it comes to special education. How can we change that?

These children may have a disability and they may need accommodations to access the educational curriculum but they are worthy of the same high expectations that is placed on our typical children. So hopefully you agree that we must have high expectations of education authorities. After all it’s the high expectations that we have today which will prepare them for a life of independence in the future. I refuse to raise a child for a life of dependence on social programs and dollars! Or worse! I very much doubt you, or any other Member of Parliament, would be happy with that situation for your own children, yet so many in government are complicit by their silence on the issue. I’m not wishing for any MP to have to raise a child with special needs but perhaps you would all feel somewhat differently about the matter if you had to.

Here we are, celebrating Education Week under the theme “Every Learner Achieves: A Call for Greater Commitment” but from where I sit it does not appear as if we truly believe in that theme. That every learner can achieve – And when the authorities call for greater commitment. Who is this call going out to? Commitment is not a one-way street. Education officials are always quick to tout the importance of the involvement of parents as stakeholders in the education of their child but when parents do get involved it appears as if your involvement is only wanted on their terms. So we’re “good” once we’re singing from the same hymn-sheet but once I challenge you… Now, I know there are some who have no tolerance for this sort of emotional honesty in communication – But I refuse to give unthinking respect to anyone/group/thing. It’s not happening!

So, no more phony consultations to provide window-dressing for progress. We don’t want that! We want real dialogue that asks all partners to help define the barriers and consider how they can contribute to solving them. I’m ready to do whatever it takes. What about you?

We can be as aware of autism as we are of the sun and moon, but this really only means that you’re on to it, you know it exists. It’s a good start; please know this – But we haven’t achieved anything until that awareness then evolves into something.  And that ladies and gentlemen is when we’ve transformed potential into a sort of action which then makes way for our children and the adults they will become, playing a valuable role in society, and for our society to see themselves as the beneficiary.

The thing is, autism awareness acceptance month has ended but it will never end for me. So, I ask that you please allow me to express my grave concern over the following…

Teacher Training

I’m a firm believer that there’s a need for major improvements to our teacher training program. I’ll just come out with it… It is my belief that there are teachers who have a less than positive attitude towards students with disabilities and their inclusion in general education classrooms – And this is not necessarily good or bad but… Actually, it is bad – But I say this, not to lay blame at their feet because I believe that a lot of it (not all) has to do with their training. Think about it. They are the ones who set the tone of their class. This means the success of inclusion of students with disabilities will depend on the prevailing attitudes of the teacher as they interact with these students. The implications here are far-reaching.

In our current program the special education course is what I would consider “weak”. Added to that, it’s optional. There is still such a huge separation between “regular” and “special” education with regards to our trainee program. If this orientation continues how are they ever going to get more opportunities to integrate materials taught or get a chance to experience the transdisciplinary nature of education as it should be practiced in classrooms today?

The fact that many of our autistic kids (and other disabilities) are just aging out of the school system, though certainly disappointing, should not be a surprise to anyone who examines what actually happens in our schools, and compare it to what research in other countries have clearly shown to be effective in educating these students. For quite some time now I’ve been urging the Ministry to begin collecting (accurate) data which they can then use to drive decision-making. To date, this is still not being done. Little productive change has eventuated at the policy level, much less at the classroom level.

So, what does all this mean? Teachers should be prepared for the students they are going to teach. When this does not happen both students and teachers are being setup for failure.

Ultimately though, I believe we should give every bad teacher an opportunity to train to get better, and if they don’t, they should be fired. Yes teachers, you’re special, but you’re not that special.

Ideology

In Antigua & Barbuda we have an “inclusion by default policy”. This means, that yes; officials may very well say that some students with disabilities are in the general classrooms in various schools – And this for them is inclusion. However, administrators and teachers interpret it as they choose, sometimes based on personal ideologies, and often to the detriment of students, because there are no Ministry checks and balances to ensure the intent of the “so-called” policy is respected.

So let me be clear… Inclusion is not a school or is it a class, or a student. What it is though, is a belief that regardless of labels, ALL students should be members of the general education community, having access to the full range of curriculum options.

To be honest, there is still some controversy over whether or not inclusion is appropriate, for example, for someone like my son (who’s autistic). However, in my opinion, I sometimes think that those who are not in favor of this are overlooking what is at the heart of the inclusion model. Don’t get me wrong, my philosophy is not inclusion at all costs. However, I think students must receive needed supports and services within the context of the regular classroom. When these accommodations are insufficient to insure educational success, then students can be placed in more restrictive settings. I also think it’s important for the students to have the opportunity to interact with nondisabled peers.

While I’m on the topic of inclusion; the “dunce class” – And you, yes you; don’t even pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about. The “dunce class” in some of our public schools is no substitute for inclusion or special education either. What a shame, the way our kids are bullied, belittled, branded and forgotten because of a diagnosed/undiagnosed learning disorder.

We need to get away from this thinking that students, and this is students with or without disabilities, fall into neat categories of educational need. It just isn’t so.

The State of the Union

Yes; I’m going there.

To begin, let me state that teacher-bashing does not equal reform and I want to avoid it at all costs. So if you’re a teacher and you’re reading this, I hope you see it for what it is – A campaign for improved educational provisions for those children who have been excluded from or marginalized within our education system because of their disability.

So yes; you have a right to stand up and demand more/better for your members and I will support you on that – But – Demand more and better for our children as well. Contrary to popular belief (and not that this makes it right) you’re not the only “public servants” who are underpaid and overworked. I’m certain many of your members are concerned about this, but I have to be honest; you’re silence on this matter has been deafening. Teaching for the children is still a part of your mission, right?

Resourcing

Let me be the first to acknowledge that yes, funding is an issue – But as I’ve said before, in some instances it is not always a matter of more money; it is a matter of smarter money. We absolutely cannot continue to throw our hands up in the air and say there is no money so we can’t do anything.

First of all I think we need someone within the Ministry to “own” this; Special Education. Not that everyone don’t all play a role at the end of the day but someone has to “own” it – And overtime give that person a team to work with. This cannot be someone who’s already taxed by their workload in the Ministry. This is unfair to our students, teacher and the overworked employee because that person cannot give the Special Education the attention it deserves.

What the Ministry of Education needs to understand is that they have to take this matter seriously. Not just in thought but in deed. Not that attitude will change overnight if they do but I think it sets the stage for that change to occur. It’s a ripple effect. “We don’t have enough money” is no longer acceptable or defensible for bad educational policies.

I’m disappointed at the state of affairs with regards to special education but I’m not surprised.

Stand Your Ground System

We have a sort of “stand your ground” special education system in Antigua & Barbuda. This means when parents want to get any help in the public system they must be able to speak-up, stand their ground and know which doors to knock on, especially when help is initially denied. And when the public system fails, families with financial means turn to private options to rescue their kids. But the vast majority of our students with autism/other disabilities in our public schools don’t have that luxury. When they complain about inadequate supports to assure academic progress, they’re told that’s all the funds the Ministry has and that’s all they should expect. End of story.

As I write my final column for Autism Awareness Acceptance Month, I just want people to know that at the end of the day, no parent who has ever watched their child or another child struggle would ever want to deny an opportunity to help a child in crisis find the support necessary to thrive and succeed. My heart goes out to families whose children have been failed because of the public system. It kills me when other families approach me and ask for help because their children are suffering and they don’t know who to talk to/afraid to “stand their ground”. These are things that they know deep down goes against everything that’s right and fair with regards to the education of their child. Let me tell you – I sometimes struggle to find the quality that, thank God, is still somewhere within me to listen and not speak my mind in very unprintable terms. Because the irony of the situation is; that’s my kid too that they’re doing this to.

Solutions that tackle the above problems within our public schools are what we need, because these will help all students who are struggling, not just a few. The private schools are good to have but guess what? They’re private! They cost! And the tuitions are generally outside of the reach of the average family. Plus ask anyone of these schools who has a special education component as a part of their offering and they will tell you that they’re overwhelmed with parents (those who can pay the tuition and many who can’t) wanting to register their kids. And a school does not a policy make.

What we need are solutions that are imbedded in the public system from the outset. Yes they will take more effort but they will identify the real barriers, generate more buy-in, serve ALL children and pay the maximum long-term dividends for all students.

What we have now is a system where we do nothing about problem, provide no intervention, and end up with a significant group of disillusioned students who have lost contact with the curriculum. How about focusing our attention and resources on emphasizing the resolution of our mistakes? So this sequence of not chain of initial failure, embarrassment, disappointment, detachment and finally dropping out, that is so predictable and ongoing, needs to come to an end. Stop addressing it as if they’re all separate issues; they are not.

We still have many folks who are in positions which can effect change but they view autism and other disabilities as a leeches on the public school system who will suck resources as they are forced (by the way, this would be by our own laws) to serve our kids.

I’ve said many times before that if any of these people would just stop to think about what it will eventually cost ALL of us in society, if we do not do everything in our power while they’re in their childhood to produce a physically and emotionally healthy, self-sufficient adult. After all, we raise them to be men and women not children.

Our law says education for ALL. Not some. Not for those who can afford to pay – But for ALL children – One that’s appropriate and in the least restrictive environment.

So when we demand, in the name of our children, education over lip service, we have nothing to apologize for.

 

In the movie The Lion King, Simba goes back to fight Scar for his rightful place in the Pride Lands. It’s one of Kuba’s favorite movies – And if it’s only one thing that he learns from that movie… My hope is that it’s the lesson of courage.

Courage to do what’s right and to stand-up for himself and others.

It’s also something that I hope time will tell that we did a good job in shaping in him. And I think a lot of it will come from us modeling that behavior ourselves.

Before autism, and everything that comes along with it, came into my life I didn’t consider myself to be a courageous person. I really didn’t. Actually, I’m not sure if I now do. Add to that, my private life back then was just that… Private!

Then I became mom to an autist and things changed. I realized very quickly that I had two choices; I could do nothing or I could do something. I chose to do something. Anything! Anything that I thought would help him overcome any challenges he had. I never saw it as a courageous act. I didn’t think I was doing no more than any parent of a “typical” kid would do for them. I was speaking out, I was advocating, I was demanding more for my son and for others like him. From time to time I get parents who would say to me; “I read your blog and I think you’re so brave for speaking out and advocating for your son. Where do you get the courage from?”

I say to them; because I owe it to him.

I remember when Kuba was initially diagnosed, we met with a psychiatrist and he asked what did we want for Kuba – And his dad responded and said that we wanted him to be the best he could be, whatever his best was. I couldn’t have said it better because nothing – ABSOLUTELY NOTHING – in this world is more important to me than knowing that Kuba will be ok on his own when we’re no longer around. It is what keeps us up at night – It’s this fear that drives me. The fear that sometimes fills my mind with thoughts of perpetual unemployment, homelessness, drug-addiction and prison – And I was going to do everything in my power to give my child a shot at a better future than that. After all isn’t that the dream of every parent, to have an independent, happy, adult child who’s capable of living on their own. My dreams are no different for my child with autism. But the attitude here is that they will continue to live with us (parents) until one of us dies. After that it’s “Good Luck Chuck”.

To date no government agency has been able to tell us how education will be provided to our kids once they enter the school system much less what happens to them once they reach adulthood. What we know now is purely anecdotal; and the picture is bleak. There’s very little opportunity for them to fully explore their full learning potential or career capabilities. And just for the record… For those of you who, sometimes with the best of intentions, when autism is mentioned, go to your only source of reference and that is the character, Raymond Babbitt, played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man and offer a compliment alluding to the myth that we have nothing to worry about because our kids are smart… Thanks but no thanks. What I want you to do; before you think our situation is not so bad and that we all have little Einsteins and Mozarts who will have us rolling in a pile-of-dough soon enough and then we can do whatever we want. Think again. This is a spectrum of disorders all different to varying degrees… No two are the same and no two have the same differences.

In the process of writing this article I decided to do a bit of research to see what other people had to say about courage. How did they define it? I came across a site that described it this way: Courage: the emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, internal or external.

I like the fact that they highlight that the opposition could be either internal or external. There’s still many of us who have not accepted that our ideas of perfection have not been realized in our child. “If only she would just…” or “Why can’t he just…” When you really stop to think about this, and I hope you do. Ask yourself if you have fulfilled all the expectations your parents had for you – And not that this is right or wrong either. It’s just that sometimes; our expectations are just that; our expectations.

You see, I think that Simba was courageous all along. He just didn’t know it. He initially told Nala when she found him; “They don’t need me!” But when she told him about what his uncle Scar had done to the pride lands, he had to go back to save his people. In his eyes that was the only choice for him. I call this “courage that knows” – Knows the risks that lies ahead but still takes action anyway because the consequences of taking no action or lesser action are unacceptable.

I sometimes end up having very intimate conversation with some moms and dads who I’m meeting for the first time and I’m sure it took quite some courage for them to talk to me about certain issues. Perhaps I would have never found my courage if it hadn’t been for son. Perhaps I would have kept on thinking that courage is something only the people who risk their lives have.

So, I still don’t quite see myself as being courageous – But there is something there, whatever it is, that makes me get out of bed each day, no matter how much I sometimes want to give up and… make another call, send another email, write another letter, reach out to someone who I think can help us move forward. Because like I said; there’s nothing – NOTHING – I will not do for my kid. After all, I owe him at least that.

I have a contagious jungle fever. Some call it courage. Don’t worry though; it’s the one you want to get.

My response to comments made in this article 

I find it quite unfortunate and totally unnecessary; the Hon. Minister’s attempt to change the tone of the message to give the public the impression that I have been dismissive of the contributions of everyone in the field of special education or her defensive posture. Again, I encourage everyone to go and read the article which appeared in the Sept. 3rd issue of the Daily Observer. Everything the Minister mentioned that the Ministry has done was highlighted in the article. The intention was very clear. The state of affairs as it relates to special education is unacceptable and for too long all the ministry has been saying is that they’re working on a plan.

Would it be fair for me to interpret what the Hon. Minister has said re: “… persons who have only recently taken up special education as an interest” to mean that if I start a domestic violence interest group today that we should have nothing to say about the lack of adequate support services available because we’re a “jus come”? And if I do say that, it means that I’m being disrespectful or showing disregard for everyone who has ever done or is doing anything in that field? Farfetched don’t you think?

If a group says that we need to put a proper juvenile system in place so that when we expel our 14, 15, 16 year olds from schools that there’s a safety net to catch them because if we don’t we’re setting ourselves up for an even bigger problem because these kids don’t just fall off the face of the earth or die, they become adults – And if we’re ever to believe any stats or study that has ever been done anywhere we will know that not having a proper juvenile system in place will lead to (potentially) more criminals, over-crowded prisons; a bigger burden on society. Does that mean they’re being disrespectful or that they disregard the work that the parents who’ve tried, the teachers, the counselor, the neighbor, the community, the police have done? Am I the only one who thinks that even those same people (may) want more and are (probably) just as equally disappointed about the progress being made?

When the Minister says that issues such as a lack of parent involvement and teacher quality which tops the list of contributing factors why public schools are under-performing in the Common Entrance Exams. I’m sure the Minister hardly expects that the parents who are “involved” to feel that she’s being disrespectful and disregarding “their” efforts.

Whether or not ABILITY started last year or yesterday is a non-issue. The discussion is about the lack of any substantial progress being made in special education in Antigua & Barbuda.

So yes; I don’t expect everyone to agree with my sentiments and that is not always a bad thing but please don’t change the tone of the discussion to anything other than what it is – A campaign for improved educational provision for those children who have been excluded from or marginalized within our education system because of their apparent difficulties. I was under the impression that we had all acknowledged the importance of parents in matters relating to education and that we all agreed that we play an important role. Well, I. Am. A. Parent. An “involved” parent…

Here’s the Ministry’s current record:

Talk of a Diagnostic Centre: I’m not against this at all but as I’ve said before – After diagnosis then what? Plus it suggests a sort of narrow interpretation of our educational difficulties which to me only prevents progress in the field. It still does not answer the question why our schools are failing to teach so many children successfully.

Special Education Council (an advisory council): I have quite a few concerns with regards to the setup of this council. This isn’t an attack on the competence of the individuals who sit on this council. Absolutely not! But consider as I have that the Chair of this council is a senior executive within the Ministry of Education. How can/does this person now play the role of advisor? More than likely they are already a part of the decision-making process within the Ministry of Education – How do they then play the role of advisor? I’m just unable to see the reasoning behind this. Also, keep in mind that the Minister of Education is under no obligation to accept the advice of the council. So I will agree that the council is a step in the right direction but my concerns remain with regards to the structure of it, which is probably why we’re not seeing any real effects since its establishment. However, an advisory council is not answerable to anyone but the person/office it advises and the buck has to stop somewhere – And I say, that’s the Hon. Minister of Education and by extension the team (Ministry) which carries out their policies. 

Offering Scholarships in Special Education: I’m all for getting more qualified teachers! But it’s great to offer scholarships but they need to fit into some larger plan. 

Adele School: As I’ve said before; the Adele School is overcrowded and under-resourced. They are doing the best they can with what they have. However, I do not agree that the building of an additional classroom is the answer to what are systemic issues. It’s just adding to the problem.

Some recommendations were made in the September 3rd article. To recap, they focused on: 

Legislation: We need to make sure that our educational act emphasizes the responsibility to respond to student diversity. Antigua & Barbuda has signed onto the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities since 2007. What meaningful steps have we taken toward ratification of this convention? 

Do – Let’s “Try” something: I believe that pilot projects are usually a great way to start. It gives you a chance to work on the model, to seek out the innovators, gives you the opportunity to prepare the people who can then be used to lead the implementation process. 

Education and Training: Teachers will need the skills and the self-confidence to take these new proposals into the classroom. This is how improvements will take place – And confidence comes through experience and training. They will need this so they can support each other and encourage experimentation with new ways of teaching. Currently the lack of flexibility and the rigidity in the methods of teaching does not favor the participation of children who might experience difficulties in learning. But a lot of this depends on… 

Support: If what is going on now is any indication of how important a role support plays when attempting to bring about change, I don’t know what is. Community participation is important, especially parent involvement. And finally; 

Data Collection (Research): Put simply; it’s an important quality component. The better you get at collecting relevant and accurate data the better decisions you make. Year after year we hear of an education budget but it’s difficult to say whether there is any correlation between the amount spent on the education system and its ability to be effective in responding to diversity.

I’m an ordinary mom. The only special interest I have is for my son and others like him to have equal access to an appropriate and adequate education. Actually the more I learn about this, the more I realize how reasoned changes would improve education for all kids. I’m proud to be able to speak up and out for them and even more determined not to stop, not even when change comes – After all change is constant. This is how things continue to evolve and get better. I hope I can get more people to join me.

So yes; there are folks who have contributed a lot to special education in Antigua & Barbuda.

And yes; I’m thankful for their contributions and the assistance they’ve given to so many children including mine.

But if anyone wants to know; yes; We. All. Want. More!

Hon. Minister of Education; thanks for all you’re about to do.

Salma Crump (Involved Parent)

I was pleased to see the follow-up story to the article on special education in Monday’s (Sept. 3) issue of The Daily Observer – And I would have felt this way even if the article had come out against ABILITY. At this point one of our aims is to engage the public. We need this issue to become more important, especially to the people who are not directly affected by it. We have to create widespread understanding and awareness among them. This is not just our problem. Like tourism; education is everybody’s business.

However, when I read the (unfortunate) comment made by Ms. Etinoff, the Chair of the Special Education Council; and I quote: “The group is currently working on a number of initiatives to be announced at a later date.” I can’t help but think… Now isn’t that the story of our lives.

I’m not entirely sure when this happened but somehow, somewhere along the lines, our society has become stuck in tomorrow (future) even though it’s not here yet. Tomorrow there will be this, tomorrow there will be that, tomorrow we’ll have a better plan for your kids – But the question is; who is thinking about today? Let us begin today! We only have that! Don’t get me wrong… Hope is good; it makes you believe in the future, and we all want that – But hope without action will result in absolutely no progress. And alas, that’s where we’re at with regards to special education in our school system.

Fortunately we don’t get to choose to educate the children we used to have or want to have, but we have an obligation to educate all of our children. After all, isn’t that the basis for public education? Come… We’re open.

“The important work of moving the world forward does not wait for perfect men.” – George Eliot      

Below is a piece I wrote on behalf of the Special Education Lobby Group ABILITY which appeared in The Daily Observer today. I’ve just had it up to here (my hands are way past my head now) with this bullshit. Yes, that’s what it is. I don’t think the Observer would allow me to say that in their paper though. I swear, at times it seems as if the way some systems are setup it’s almost as if any opposition is destined for failure. Anyway, I’m tempted to rant like 3 pages long so before I do (it would have been ugly) I will end my comments here. I think what’s below can speak for itself.

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When we’re out there talking to parents, we talk about what we’ve done, what we would like to see over the coming years, and why the authorities have done so little to change the archaic and dangerous policies that have failed and continue to fail our children.

But there is another question that keeps coming up, and you need to know about it: “Why does the Ministry of Education continue to say that this is a priority when so little is being done?”

You don’t need us to tell you that our education system as it relates to special education is inherently flawed and we have allowed a bad situation to get worse. ABILITY has been calling on the Ministry of Education to do more for students with special needs and was cautiously optimistic when the ministry said that this was a priority area for them.

But to this day, no one outside of the Ministry of Education has any solid idea of how to go about changing/revamping the system. Even after setting up an advisory council (Special Education Council) almost a year ago, the ministry has released scant information about future plans.

We have been asking for more information forever, essentially. We’ve sent many letters of concern to top ministry officials. Details have come out in dribs and drabs. The one detail the ministry touts most often is the diagnostic centre it plans on opening. When and how it will function, to a large extent has been a mystery. When it comes to more complex and meaningful information the ministry has been mum.

Has the priority for special education shifted? If so they need to tell us – But we can’t imagine why. Have the number of students needing support in this area declined? The answer is no. As a matter of fact the numbers are growing. Are parents satisfied? We are parents – We’re not – And there are countless others like us. Where have the trained special education teachers in the system been placed? Ministry officials should know this but they don’t. This is key data which would help in the decision-making process. What is the ministry learning (from a top-level view) about instruction for students with special needs? How is it working (or not) from school to school? We are confident that it’s not working and want to do all that we can to change this.

There are questions we’ve asked again and again and we believe these questions should be answered.

We have met with top ministry officials and we were confident that the ministry had the students’ best interests at heart. They had even responded to some of the suggestions, for example providing informal training to teachers – Various topics related to special education was a major part of a one week summer program offered to teachers and parents this year. But we have to admit that we’re growing increasingly alarmed that the ministry has not come forward with more substantive plans.

Building a diagnostic centre and offering scholarships in that field of study, although great, cannot be all there is to the plan. First of all; you build it and they will come; in droves; for sure. Then what? Can’t be that we’re going to diagnose them then put them in the same school system that we already know is not working.

For those of you who are not as engaged; here’s what we’re seeking: A special education mechanism that isadequateefficientequitablepredictableflexibletransparentfully placement-neutral and accountable for spending and student outcomes.

We realize that funding is an issue but we know too that sometimes, it is not always a matter of more money; it is a matter of smarter money. For example; collecting (accurate) data and using it to drive decision-making – No one seems to be doing this. Too much guessing is going on and we can’t afford to do that with taxpayers dollars, and more important, with the lives of so many school children in Antigua & Barbuda. Plus there is still a need for a solid policy. We still firmly believe that the current Education Act does not speak enough to special education – There’s no “teeth” to it.

So, what ideas do we have? Here’s what we think are some easy-to-implement solutions, along with more sweeping measures for lasting change.

  1. Resist the urge to establish any new public schools to be used primarily for students with disabilities. We know it may seem an unlikely solution coming from us but we believe that the taxpayer dollars would be better spent improving and expanding our capacity now, rather than building and financing new separate buildings.
  2. Directly encourage public/private partnerships. This will bring first-rate, specialized services into all settings – Helping to ensure that our students receive their special education services in the least restrictive environment.
  3. Funding to any public school should be based on actual enrollment. This means that it would be generated based on the degree of the student’s needs – So the school zones with greater needs will get the funding they need to serve the students they identify – A school with fewer students classified for special education should not be receiving more funding than a school more classified students. There can be no room for competition among programs; neither turf guarding nor rigid specialization. The goal is to keep our students closer to home.
  4. Special Education should be a mandatory course for teachers in training. Currently this is an elective course and too many of our teachers in training are opting out of it. Also the course is very “weak” and need to be more robust.  The reasoning behind this is that these students can show up in any class – We believe our teachers should have some solid basic training in this area further equipping them to better manage a wide range of skills in the classroom.
  5. Designate a quota of all annual (teacher awarded) scholarships to special education.

In order for this to work, programs must be linked, people must work together, and program goals as well as individual school improvement goals need to support the same standard. It’s important for the Ministry of Education to take on a big-picture view. They cannot afford to become enmeshed in one aspect of reform such as building a diagnostic centre or embark on any other new project in a piecemeal effort to achieve reform. This type of systemic change will require people who have an overall vision of where special education needs to go and a willingness to reorganize and support system-wide change.  Unsystematic efforts will waste time – and we think we can all agree that we’ve lost enough of that – diverting the focus from the larger goal of ensuring that each child with special needs receive a free appropriate public education, just like any other child.

You’re getting this email because you know what the stakes are. You know the facts about what we’ve asked the Ministry of Education to do (they’ve come up with no alternative) to prevent a deeper crisis and to start building an educational system that works for all.

But it looks like the only thing that can bring about change is you.

So the next time you hear a ministry official saying that special education is a priority, remember that they’ve done nothing about it. Ask them to explain why.

Thanks for standing with ABILITY.

 


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