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Posts Tagged ‘special education

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  

I’ve been to the Ministry before and nothing has become of it. The promises which were made in 2011, 2012, and 2013 are still the same promises made in 2014. Has the Minister forgotten that she’s a public servant – working on behalf of the people? What misguided boldness! Such utter nonsense being publicly aired by a Minister of Government! That I, as a parent, knows where the Ministry is. Clearly suggesting that if I have any issues I should take my concerns there! Honorable Minister, I think it’s important that you understand that in government, there are going to be decisions you make (or actions you take) whose effects are likely to outlast the government of the day – And those, in my humble opinion are worthy of being addressed in public. Also, please tell the good public that I’ve been there (to your office) and done that! Tell them about the emails I’ve sent sharing my views and suggesting ways that the Ministry could possible get things done. Tell them about the discussions I’ve had with you and other members of your team about this very topic. But as Martin Luther King once said…  “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” So, get off your high-horse and stand! This sort of superior attitude is what makes the public despair. There is a huge problem with regards to the provision of special education in this country. These deep systemic problems we’re faced with are not mine alone – And they are bigger than the speeches, the openings and the photo-ops we sometimes clamor for

Regarding the Minister’s comments about my supposed attack on the members who sit on the Special Education Council… For those who missed it, here’s an excerpt of what I said:

“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 requires.”

I’m not attacking the competencies of the individuals as you suggest. Actually, it’s your competency I question. You’re the one who has made the people doing the work both the doers and the advisers. How can you expect no one to question this? The actions you take have a direct impact on things and it baffles me that you’re unable to see this conflict. So, please do not confuse my right to be critical publicly with anything else. Don’t make that vulgar mistake that I’m somehow persecuting you or anyone else just because you’re being challenged.

Instead of working with the press to help the public understand what you are doing and why, you chose to defend your lackluster record where special needs education is concerned, on the grounds that you’re standing up for others. Give me a break! Quit trying to rationalize your phoniness into some sort of noble act. You’re not standing up for anyone! You’re using them as a shield! By the way, NO ONE! I repeat… NO ONE! Can be more hurt than the parents of these kids! At the end of the day you switch off your lights and leave your office. This is our ALL DAY EVERYDAY! So if you’re hurt, keep it to yourself! Use that energy to put the proper programs and policies in place to make the education system better for our children. It’s so ironic that it suits you now to say that every criticism is a broad-brush approach. In a quote from an article posted on Caribbean News Now in 2013, you said: “This particular area of education has not been done justice over the years”. Were we to believe then, that the same folks you accuse me of disregarding now were being disregarded by you when you made those comments? Come on Minister… Give us all some more credit than that. No right-thinking person would assume that’s what you meant. Also, we agree with you! That’s what this public conversation is about! Plus, at the end of the day, don’t you think those same people want better, more meaningful change too?

Here’s some advice… Don’t campaign on an issue, make empty promises, and take the job of Minister of Education, if you don’t want to be held accountable for it. We’re not accountable to you; it’s the other way around. This is our tax dollars you’re spending! It’s not only at election time you have to come to us – But you have to come to us every time! Get it right! I do not profess to have all the answers, after all, like you said I’m a “just come”. But I would love if at least once, after giving your excuses, you could tell the public what your plans really are and explain to us why the promises you’ve made have not been kept.

When the 2014 Education Week launched with a call for greater commitment – Again, what are you asking us to commit to? Can’t be blind commitment? Which, as far as I’m concerned is intellectual suicide – And I cherish my independence too much to allow that. But you know, I once came across a quote which said: “The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” So from me to you…

I will continue to be critical, because no government gets it right all the time. So stop treading on dangerous ground with your archaic views – This notion some politicians have where they want you to come to their office to bare your soul. So sing to the media and cry inside these walls. Perhaps it’s because of how I was raised and the fact that I probably watch too much MSNBC, that I find it difficult to accept that crap.

As I’ve said before, 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. I’m proud to be able to speak up and out for them and even more determined not to stop. So you see… Honorable Minister; I’m not asking for anything that you yourself haven’t asked for, said we needed. All I’m saying is: Talk is not all that matters…

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?


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