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Posts Tagged ‘public education system

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  


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