My idea is to explore how other countries around the world are dealing with education and special education issues. I’d like to see different successful schools, wherever they may be, up close. I’d like to sit down with directors and administrators. I’d like to speak with government officials who keep a pulse on the education affairs of their communities. I want to learn more about education around the globe through speaking with locals, seeing the schools, and shaking hands with the people responsible for implementing the systems. If you know of any outstanding (public or private) special needs schools in other parts of the world, I’d love to hear about them. If you know any education experts from around the world, I’d love to be introduced to them. Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts or ideas. Read more about my mission.
Thursday, December 3, 2015
So much to be done, but where to begin?
I started with to-do lists. Lots and lots of to-do lists to organize myself and keep focused. I stayed busy and positive. Build a website, place ads, print business cards, network, speak with parents, meet with schools, and find clients!
From time to time, when I needed a distraction or an emotional boost, I would turn on an episode of The Office. Yup, watching The Office in the office. The show was a gift from my then-girlfriend now-wife who bought me the first couple of seasons on DVD when I told her I had never seen the show. Something tells me, though, that she probably didn't intend for me to watch it in the office.
I pounded the pavement, and clients started to call. I was eager to provide exceptional service, obtain outstanding results, and impress my clients. I am proud of the results we have achieved. At the same time, with every new client comes the responsibility of proving ourselves again. That is a responsibility I continue to take seriously no matter how long we've been around, how expert we've become, or what results we've achieved in the past.
I remember a friend questioning my decision to start my own firm. Something to the effect of "Are you for real?" I might have brushed it off then if not for the fact that I was doubting myself the same way he was doubting me. Six years later, though, I can say, yes - I am for real. The firm has grown significantly, and I feel like I've come a long way. Since starting out, I have hired a full-time associate and office administrator. We've handled hundreds of cases, helped numerous children and families, successfully litigated and settled cases of substantial monetary value, and built a reputation for tenaciousness, dedication, honesty, and exceptional results. I take great pride in that, and look forward to helping many more families navigate the special education legal process. I continue to be deeply interested and invested in the practice of special education law, which has been both professionally and personally fulfilling, and I am excited to see what the future holds.
I am thankful to the parents who have trusted us to advocate for their children, and the various professionals from whom I have learned so much. I am excited about developing the firm's global mission and sharing my experiences with you.
While I reflect on this very happy six-year anniversary, I also look forward to many more years of advocating for children, and being able to watch them grow, develop, and succeed.
I would also like to take this opportunity to wish you and your families happy holidays and a wonderful new year.
All the best in 2016.
Friday, May 22, 2015
See also: https://storify.com/yangbodu/nordicedtech
The Resonaari Music School is an amazing program that offers a variety of programs and opportunities for people of all ages and abilities. The directors of the program have incredible passion for their work, and the combination of their passion and the music thumping in the background entranced me. What struck me most about Resonaari was how the school supports people with special needs. While it is not exclusive to people with special needs, it provides a warm, nurturing environment in which they are able to discover abilities they never knew they had, connect with others through musical collaboration, and develop their sense of self-worth. Resonaari also provides extra support and modified instructional materials to those who require them. Observing one group of students, some of whom had special needs, while they practiced for an upcoming concert performance was one of the highlights of my visit.
I was also impressed by the program’s reach and influence. Resonaari has collaborated with the Finnish National Board of Education regarding the development of a national music curriculum. Resonaari is also engaged in ongoing music research, including how to adapt music for people with special needs. In addition, Resonaari has influenced the creation of similar music programs in other parts of the world, and is part of a global movement to connect people with music.
More information available at: http://www.resonaari.fi/
More information available at: http://www.ruskis.fi/in-english.html
The Keskupuisto Vocational School is exclusive to students with special needs, whose issues range from attention to autism to severe psychiatric disorders. Keskupuisto offers a wide array of vocational programs including mechanics, photography, audio visual, technical design, music, dance, and cooking. Classrooms are small and structured, one-to-one support is available where necessary, and students are expected to complete a significant amount of on-the-job training in order to apply their in-classroom learning to real-life settings. The school offers both certificate and non-certificate programs, as well as unique opportunities for immigrant students. The facilities are immaculately clean and beautifully designed, and located just a few steps away from Helsinki’s Central Park. I toured some of the classrooms, and spoke with students and staff, and was impressed by the students' work.
More information available at: http://www.keskuspuisto.fi/en.php
Thursday, May 14, 2015
The first thing that struck me was the physical appearance of the schools. The buildings were beautiful and new. Outside spaces were vast with lots of room for students to roam. Indoor spaces were filled with natural light. The classrooms were clean, organized, and colorful.
I was impressed by the teachers. The teachers I spoke with came across as intelligent, serious, committed, and engaging, and they were enthusiastic about their work. I was also impressed by the amount of independence that the teachers possessed. Teachers were in charge of their classrooms without being accountable to a higher school authority, which I think promotes ownership. Since principals do not spend time monitoring their teachers in class, they can focus on broader school issues such as budget and development, which benefits the school and, in turn, the students. Teachers still obtain professional development throughout the year, but when it comes to their classroom teaching, they are trusted and respected as professionals, and given substantial freedom.
I was impressed by the level of attention to each child. Teachers and staff meet frequently to discuss the needs of all students in the school - both general and special education. Based on those meetings, the school staff can respond to each child's needs in whatever manner is appropriate. For example, schools may provide extra academic support for students who need it, or reach out to social service agencies when children need the kind of support that would extend beyond the school day. Schools have designated special education teachers who move from class to class, and since they do not have their own classrooms to teach, they can provide varying levels of support to students from different classrooms, as needed. This allows school to be flexible about meeting students' needs as issues arise, and does not require a formal diagnosis or a complicated administrative process.
I also got the feeling that schools in Finland focus on the whole child. All students receive a free lunch, irrespective of family income, which has the positive benefit of (1) making sure that no students go hungry, and (2) not singling out students who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford lunch. In addition to the regular academic curriculum, students must fulfill demanding language requirements, which require them to master Finnish, English, and Swedish. Students also benefit from non-academic specialties such as sewing and woodworking. In general, the schools were warm and nurturing environments, and the students seemed happy, well-behaved, and engaged.
I think it's also worth noting that I did not detect concerns about onerous accountability standards or compliance requirements.
All in all, the schools I saw seemed like nice learning environments that were committed to their students' success.
Tuesday, May 5, 2015
Some of the points that stand out most in my mind from my conversations with people at the University have to do with inclusion, equity, high-stakes testing, and immigration.
Three-tier model – Finland’s three-tier inclusion model calls for escalating levels of support to meet the needs of those with special needs. Most students in Finland, at some point in their education, receive special education support, which could range from just a few hours of academic tutoring for a child with mild needs, to consistent academic interventions for a child with moderate needs, to a full-blown individualized learning plan for a child with severe needs. My impression was that these supports are implemented without a whole lot of red tape – i.e., it’s pretty easy for parents to access these supports. Teachers and administrators seemed to be laser-focused about helping the child, and less concerned about compliance and accountability. Resources are deployed to schools accordingly. In many schools, for example, part-time special education teachers who do not teach classrooms of their own are available to provide additional academic support on an ad hoc basis to any students in the school who require it.
Equity - Finland emphasizes equity a great deal. That’s not to say that every school is perfect, but the percentage of inferior schools in Finland is smaller than in most other countries around the world. Finland works hard to maintain a balance that allows parents to feel confident that their local school is as good as any other. In the U.S. there seems to be a much larger disparity between our good schools and our poor or mediocre schools. Our schools need to be more balanced.
High-stakes testing - High-stakes testing basically does not exist in Finland. There is only one high-stakes exam at the end of high school, and a number of low-stakes subject tests that students are required to take in certain subjects. These low-stakes subject tests are generally used to develop “best practices” for schools and teachers; they do not impact the students themselves. Since Finland doesn’t emphasize high-stakes testing, more time can be devoted to actual learning. In the U.S., there has been a lot of debate about the consequences of students losing out on classroom learning time because of test preparation. Maximizing in-class learning time makes sense, and I was impressed by Finland's emphasis on this.
Challenges - Finland has its share of challenges as well, including: (1) Budget - Even in a small country of 5 million people, resources are limited and decisions have to be made about where to give services and where to cut them, which can result in certain demographics being underserved; (2) Staff – Some teachers may have more traditional teaching styles and be less inclined to adopt new learning approaches; (3) Immigration - Immigration in Finland is increasing, and the government is grappling with questions about who to admit into the country and how to educate new immigrants. How the government addresses these issues in the future could have important implications for the Finnish education system.
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Although the Finnish Board used to conduct school inspections to evaluate whether teachers were teaching effectively, teachers today are afforded a significant amount of autonomy. This frees up resources, which the Board can spend in other areas. The Board’s current role involves collecting information from schools (teachers and/or school administrators are expected to complete questionnaires), conducting research, and compiling statistics to inform conclusions about the school system as a whole. While some students may be expected to take standardized tests sometimes, high-stakes standardized tests generally do not exist in the Finnish system (with the exception of one standardized exit exam when a child graduates from high school). I was amazed by Finland's approach to oversight and accountability, which was strikingly different from the U.S.'s.
The Board is involved with curriculum development to some extent, but the guidelines it develops are only loosely followed by the municipalities. The Board may dictate what skills should be worked on, but the local schools determine how those skills should be worked on. The Finnish curriculum sounded less onerous than the U.S.'s Common Core, but it would be interesting to take a closer look at how the two approaches compare.
How Finland is able to achieve and maintain equity among its different schools when the schools operate independently and without substantial federal involvement is a question that persisted in my mind throughout the trip. In Finland, schools and populations vary widely between regions of the country, so maintaining equity and ensuring that all school districts receive adequate resources doesn't come without challenges. I was impressed with the high level of quality among its schools despite those challenges, and I questioned whether federal involvement was important in order to achieve consistency.
The idea of "special education lawyers" is foreign to people in Finland (not sure where that would leave me if I moved to Finland today). In Finland, the government usually provides the services that are required without legal proceedings being necessary. While there is a mechanism in place for parents who are dissatisfied with the supports being provided, those complaint procedures are rarely if ever used. When they are used, lawyers are typically not involved. I was impressed with the ease of accessing supports and services.
Monday, April 20, 2015
I have been visiting Finnish schools, meeting with educational experts, and exploring programs that are addressing education and special education in unique ways.
Over the next few days, I hope to report back about details from the trip and insights I have gained.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Live stream available now through You Tube at :
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Friday, October 31, 2014
It was a pleasant drive from New York to Connecticut on I-95 on an overcast and crisp, but not yet cold, fall afternoon. Foliage lined the highway. I arrived at the Pinchbeck rose farm at about two o'clock in the afternoon. Cows grazed on the side of the road as we pulled up to the main entrance. We were greeted warmly by Tom Pinchbeck and Michelle Ouimette. I had hoped to observe the employees in action, but they had just left for the day. Tom and Michelle showed me around the premises. On the lot, there were two greenhouses, one of which was currently in use. The one greenhouse produces around 500,000 roses per year. Lilies are grown and sold as well, but those make up a much smaller share of the business. A high-powered boiler room provides a steady flow of steam to the greenhouse to maintain an optimal temperature.
The individuals with autism whom Roses employs are responsible for growing, monitoring, cutting, packaging, and shipping the roses, as well as for other aspects of the business. They are paid employees, not interns or volunteers - a distinction that Roses emphasizes to encourage ownership. Since Roses is an "inclusive" environment, most of the employees are "typically developing" people who serve as mentors to those with special needs. Students from local mainstream public and private schools volunteer at the rose farm. Profits from the sale of flowers are invested back into the business to cover employees' salaries, to fund scholarships and career training programs, and to ensure that the business can sustain itself in the future.
If Roses is the business part of the organization, Discover Learn Work is the training part. Individuals with autism and related disorders can enroll in Discover Learn Work for business training that may include coursework at college campuses, internship opportunities at various training sites, coaching through the job interview process, or support through gainful employment.
What I found particularly interesting is that Discover Learn Work works with local public schools to meet the needs of transitioning students who require vocational training. In New York, transition programs and vocational training are a huge unmet need. Discover Learn Work participates in IEP meetings to aid in developing transition goals, and works with IEP students to implement their transition goals at one of the Discover Learn Work training sites.
Roses is part of a larger parent company called Ability Beyond (http://abilitybeyond.org/about-us/), which is run by CEO Tom Fanning (http://www.rosesforautism.com/tf/) and operates in Connecticut and New York. Roses is a growing company with plans for expansion. Short-term goals include opening the second greenhouse and creating a stronger brand image. Long-term expansion plans are still taking shape.
On my way out, I purchased a few dozen short-stem roses and some lilies for the women in my family, who were enchanted by the scent and quality of the flowers.
Monday, May 26, 2014
I attended the event on Thursday and truly enjoyed the evening. The event was hosted in a beautiful space in Tribeca. Arriving guests were greeted warmly with music playing in the background and snacks and drinks awaiting consumption. The crowd was intimate and diverse, with various professionals from different backgrounds in the audience. Although a power point presentation and video clip guided the presentation, the conversation was informal and interactive, with audience members sharing their perspectives and personal experiences.
The presentation consisted of many of the same points as were presented at the Brooklyn College event: child-centered approach (letting the child’s interests guide instruction, rather than following a predetermined agenda set by the teacher), teacher/parent as researcher (understanding the child’s interests through observation of the child’s individual movements and patterns), and materials conducive to learning (easily accessible, natural, etc.). The overall message, to put it succinctly: encourage the child to explore and discover!
A point I hadn’t considered prior to this evening was the importance of recording children’s thoughts and comments as they explore and discover, which can help to track and understand the development of a child’s interests and his/her overall personal growth. I developed an appreciation for the importance of exposing children to sensory stimuli early on. Children also need to learn the consequences of their actions through guided exploration, rather than to fear the unknown because of overprotective teachers. To conclude the evening, we explored the similarities and difference among the Reggio Emilia model, the Montessori approach, and Dr. Stanley Greenspan’s DIR/Floortime methodology.
It’s unclear to me, however, whether this Workforce Bill is the right approach for addressing this issue. According to Education Week (see http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2014/05/bipartisan_bicameral_workforce.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+CampaignK-12+(Education+Week+Blog%3A+Politics+K-12), the primary purpose of the bill is not K-12 education but rather workforce training issues, including adult education. But the bill continues to fund a number of K-12 programs, which I imagine would leave less money for supportive employment for individuals with special needs. If the part of the bill that focuses on youths concerns itself not only with individuals with special needs but also high-school dropouts and disadvantaged youth who are pursuing GED’s or vocational training, which seems to be the case, how much of the funds would be applied toward special needs individuals?
I haven’t read the existing version of the bill, but I’d be curious to know if it addresses the following points. What kinds of supports would these individuals receive to assist with transitioning to the workforce? For instance, would there be daily support in the form of an on-site job coach or shadow, or perhaps a once a month group training session with some tips on how to act around the office? What kinds of jobs would these individuals be transitioned to? Who would qualify for this program? That is, would more intensive supports be provided for individuals with more severe needs, or would those with more severe impairments be excluded? What employers are participating or will participate in this program, and what training do they/will they receive? How will compensation for disabled individuals compare to the compensation of their nondisabled peers performing the same job?
While this approach to legislation may be politically convenient for the reasons that Education Week identifies, I’m not convinced it represents the kind of broad reform that I think we need to help individuals with disabilities become independent and productive adults. I’d be curious to hear others’ thoughts on this, and would be interested in learning more about what other efforts are being made to address this important issue.
Sunday, May 18, 2014
The U.S. Department of Education supports charter schools’ efforts to provide students, including those in some of the nation’s highest-need communities, with additional meaningful opportunities to receive a high-quality public education. Today, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights has released new guidance (versión en español) providing a reminder that our federal civil rights laws apply to charter schools just as they apply to other public schools.
The guidance explains that the federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in education on the basis of race, color, and national origin; sex; and disability extend to all operations of a charter school, including recruiting, admissions, academics, educational services and testing, school climate (including prevention of harassment), disciplinary measures (including suspensions and expulsions), athletics and other nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, and accessible buildings and technology.
We hope that the guidance issued today will help enhance the role charter schools can play in advancing equal opportunity for all students. Our office stands ready to provide technical assistance should you or your colleagues need it.
The Office for Civil Rights
Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Another point I found interesting was that Educare came about as a result of the work force expansion in Sweden in the 1970's. When more women started working, someone had to look after their children. For a while the program was run under the auspices of the social welfare system. In 1998, Educare officially became part of the educational system.
Thursday, May 1, 2014
Sweden is internationally lauded for its public, comprehensive, accessible and affordable Educare system, which provides all Swedish young children with some of the very best care and education. New York City is embarking on a massive expansion of pre-K programs. What can we learn from Sweden's experience?
What: Discussion: "Universal Preschool in Sweden: Inspiration for Progressive Early Childhood Education"
Who: The Brooklyn College Department of Early Childhood and Art Education and the Brooklyn College School of Education
Where: Gold Room, 6th Floor, Brooklyn College Student Center, Campus Road and East 27th Street
When: Monday, May 5th at 6pm
For Information: Contact email@example.com
Sunday, March 30, 2014
"Restoring Hope During Adolescent Crises" Panel Event at the Robert Louis Stevenson School on Thursday, April 3
Restoring Hope during Adolescent Crises
an evening of networking and panel discussion
Date: April 3, 2014
Time: 6:30-8:00 PM
Questions to be addressed: When is intervention needed? Does your adolescent need an alternative school environment? Will your adolescent ever go back into mainstream education? What are reasonable parenting expectations? What supports should you make sure exist on a college campus? Professionals working with adolescents and their parents may also find this event quite helpful.
Friday, March 21, 2014
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
This weekend I had the pleasure of attending the annual Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) conference in Baltimore, Maryland, a short and immensely enjoyable 3-hour Amtrak train ride from NY Penn Station. This year's conference boasted the largest attendance ever, attracting approximately 550 attendees from all over the country.
This was my 5th COPAA conference. As I contemplated this while roaming the corridors of the Waterfront Marriott where the conference was held, moving from one session to the next, this felt like a significant milestone for me. As usual, the conference gave me an opportunity to reflect on where I’ve been over the last year. It was also nice to look around and recognize a significant number of the attendees.
The conference offered the usual assortment of trainings and workshops. Some highlights for me included:
Cross Examination of Experts - Great full-day workshop with Frank Hickman and Tracey Walsh focusing on the art of cross examination.
Legal and Academic Perspectives on America's Public Education - Big-picture, policy-related session considering the roots of education from the 1600’s through the present, new movements including online education and school choice, and the usual hot-button issues of accountability, high-stakes testing, evaluations, and teacher performance. The afternoon portion of the day (a bit harder to get through perhaps due to sleep deprivation kicking in) addressed the intricacies of the Common Core and Universal Design for Learning, and their implications for special needs students.
Keynote Speaker LeDerick Horne - This year's speaker, LeDerrick Horne, truly delivered. He spoke about the difficulties he experienced as a child with a learning disability and the constant fear of public embarrassment that he endured on a daily basis. When he was close to breaking down, he chose instead to break through. He pushed through elementary and high school, attended college, and obtained his undergraduate degree. He has become an entrepreneur and performance poet who has worked as an advocate on the national, state and local level. While he continues to struggle with his learning difficulties, he has devised useful tools to help him cope. His presentation also included a poem or two. More information available at www.lederick.com.
General Session - Matthew Cohen delivered an impassioned speech, acknowledging the gains we have made in the areas of disability and civil rights law, but emphasizing the big steps we still need to take to move forward. He spoke forcefully, peppering the audience with real-life examples of injustices he has seen in cases he has handled, and the energy in the room rose quickly. That led to a group discussion with the audience, which led to several people speaking about the importance of embracing the concept of individuals with different abilities and focusing what unique skills people have rather than focusing on what they lack, which resonated with me and reminded me of my visit to the Ann Sullivan Center.
Life Planning for Families of Loved Ones with Special Needs - An emphasis on special needs trusts and guardianships, and how those issues can be tied into due process hearings and/or settlement agreements.
Creating a Winning Stay Put Argument - An interesting session that highlighted some of the many permutations that one might encounter when dealing with the issue of "stay put" and the question of what should be considered a child's last agreed upon placement.
Retrospective Testimony/Monday Morning Quarterbacking - Unfortunately I did not attend this event, but after hearing everyone talk about it, I wished I had. The session focused on the issue of retrospective testimony, and the implications of recent court decisions regarding this issue.
A Case Study: An Effort To Grow Special Education Advocacy Awareness - Andy Cuddy presented on his recent media campaign to reach impoverished special needs parents in Rochester through the use of television commercial spots. The campaign emphasized raising awareness in a tactful way. While some may have dismissed the event off-hand, I was glad I attended. I found the presentation to be professional, informative, and thought provoking.
Redefining Functional Skills for the 21st Century - This workshop helped me to reconsider what it means for a child with special needs to be "functional" in the 21st century, with a focus on inclusion in a general education setting.
Latest Top 40 Chart-Topping Decisions - The most entertaining case law review that I have ever attended (and it's no easy task to make this stuff exciting). The presenters delivered their top 40 cases over the last several years in the format of a top 40 music countdown, highlighting fact scenarios that were particularly ridiculous and excerpts from decisions containing language that was particularly powerful.
COPAA is a great organization to join if you think you might benefit from a network of attorneys, advocates, parents, and others involved in the area of special needs. Parent membership costs $50 per year and provides access to a wonderful community. For more information, you can visit the COPAA website: http://www.copaa.org/.
Next year's conference is scheduled for March 5-8, 2015 at Paradise Point Resort & Spa in San Diego, California!
Sunday, February 23, 2014
You may remember that Friday was the day of the fog. For much of the close to two-hour-drive up to Monticello, I was looking out at a wall of whiteness. I was surrounded by snowy mountains, snow on the ground, and an intense, consuming fog that all seemed to blend into one. The road was quiet. The visibility on the road was awful. Many times the road disappeared, and I changed lanes to get behind a car that I could follow closely because I figured as long as I could see the car that meant there was still road. Once I got over the initial shock of the daunting driving conditions, I began to appreciate the stark beauty. The bright white and bare trees created a somewhat eerie but incredibly peaceful landscape which I said I would describe as "fantastical" if others asked. I felt myself breathing in the beauty of my surroundings by inhaling them through the air vents on the dashboard. My senses felt heightened and I kept myself from turning on the radio because I didn't want to ruin the moment. Though my day had only barely started, I was feeling very glad to be making this trip.
I arrived at The Center For Discovery around 10 a.m. The school grounds cover 1,500 acres of land with various campuses, which are set up thoughtfully to meet the unique needs of the students housed at each campus. For example, a campus intended for children with autism, was expertly designed by none other than Temple Grandin whose goal was to construct the campus in way that was sensitive to the sensory needs of its students, as children with autism can become easily overwhelmed by light, sound, and smell. I also saw a kitchen that was tailor-made for individuals in wheelchairs such that all of the kitchen equipment could be adjusted higher or lower according to the student's height. The school primarily serves individuals aged 5-21, who, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, may be entitled to funding for the cost of the program. The Center also serves individuals above the age of 21, but as a general rule those individuals would need to obtain funding through Medicaid and the Office of People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD). The oldest individual currently enrolled is 85 years old.
The Center began in the 1940's as an institution for the education of individuals with cerebral palsy, but gradually evolved to include students with a range of issues including autism and multiple physical handicaps. The Center For Discovery, like the Ann Sullivan Center, emphasizes functional education, rather than rote learning of academics that may have limited practical application in the real world. Students learn hands-on by participating in a panoply of activities including gardening, cooking, dancing, farming, and working in the Center's on-site restaurants and cafes that are designed to teach important skills. During these activities, student receive ongoing support from school staff which focuses on teaching important skills necessary to function in the real world and aims to prepare students for an eventual transition to a less supportive educational setting or, where possible, an appropriate work environment tailored to the specific interests and abilities of the particular student. The Center is primarily a full-time residential program, which means that the students live on campus 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with some exceptions for family visits and vacations. To a lesser degree, the Center functions as a day program for students who are bussed from nearby districts. There are currently about 500 total students in the two programs. There are about 1,500 staff members including teachers, psychologists, social workers, related service providers, behavior specialists, and "integration specialists." Classrooms typically consist of 6 students and approximately 3 staff members. Students are grouped according to their needs and abilities. Reverse inclusion provides mainstreaming opportunities for students to interact with typically developing peers from the community through sporting activities and other opportunities to socialize and mingle.
The Center For Discovery has a research arm in addition to the hands-on instructional program described above. Partnering with different institutions around the country, the Center is actively pursuing answers to questions concerning effective approaches to the education and development of individuals with disabilities. The Center is active internationally by participating in conferences around the world concerning various special education topics. The Center also conducts assessments and evaluations to help families better understand what supports and interventions are necessary for their children to make meaningful gains. The Center also works closely with local school districts through staff trainings and workshops, which has allowed the Center to extend its reach to help students outside of its own program. The Center is working on plans for expansion in order to make its services available to a wider population.
I would like to thank the wonderful people at The Center For Discovery who welcomed me warmly and spent over three hours showing me around, discussing their amazing program, and sharing a glimpse of some of the very exciting things that they have planned for the near future. Thank you for the fantastic work that you do, and good luck with your new endeavors!
For more information about The Center For Discovery, visit the school's website:
Thursday, January 16, 2014
Sunday, December 8, 2013
It's hard to sum up the trip in just a few short words but I have some thoughts…
The government in Peru does very little in the way of providing supports for individuals with special needs. At first I found myself asking about concepts that are foreign to people in Peru: government funding, residential schools, group homes, autism research groups. For the most part these things do not exist there. I realized that I needed to leave behind some of the assumptions and biases that I brought from my experiences back home.
In Peru, there is a tremendous gap between what the government provides to special needs students compared to general education students. Some of the problems that people described to me include a dearth of laws protecting individuals with different abilities, corruption in politics, lack of awareness, lack of media attention, lack of special education programs, lack of funds, and lack of a structured legal system by which to enforce existing rights. These negatives forces have created a maelstrom that helps to explain the awful situation in which parents of special needs children finds themselves. For example, during one school visit, I observed special needs kids in complete squalor in a makeshift “school” in a dirt field surrounded by filth, rats, and infestation. I was told that under no circumstances would the government allow such circumstances to continue for general education students.
Do special needs students have any rights? On paper, they do have some rights. But even in cases where legislation has been enacted, the accompanying regulations have not been passed, so no one has any idea of how that law is supposed to be implemented. The government has not spelled out a process by which parents can enforce those rights when they are being denied. When I mentioned that in the U.S. we have federal legislation that both protects children with special needs and creates a mechanism for enforcement, I was met with a smile that to me communicated a deep sense of longing for more of that in their own country, and a sense of how far off they felt it was.
In some instances, where the government has failed, private schools have stepped in as discussed below.
Role of the family
The importance of the role of the family in the education and development of a child with special needs may seem like an obvious point, but at the Ann Sullivan Center (Centro Ann Sullivan del Peru, or CASP, in Spanish), a private special education school in Lima that educates children with severe developmental impairments, family involvement and collaboration is practiced day in and day out and it permeates everything the school does. The school's mantra says that the school is 30% responsible for a child's education and development, and the child's family is 70% responsible. Parents understand this idea and embrace it.
The kids at CASP only attend school for approximately 4-5 hours per day, 4 days per week. And the school does not provide every therapy under the sun. At first, I was skeptical of such a model. However, I quickly came to appreciate the tremendous impact of the program. Given their limited financial resources, CASP has created a system where learning and development occur around the clock, not merely within the confines of the school walls.
Teaching functional skills
At CASP, children are taught functional skills that they will need for real life based on the school’s Functional/Natural Curriculum. This approach was developed by a U.S. behavioral expert but rejected by U.S. institutions. The idea behind the curriculum is to focus on skills that children will actually use, rather than to teach rigid academic skills that may have no practical value for them later on.
Students at the Ann Sullivan Center are prepared for employment through regular job training exercises, which are supported by CASP as part of CASP’s overall mission to prepare students for gainful employment. I observed kids receiving their job training at a real life restaurant, re-arranging the chairs, setting the tables, handling the silverware, and cleaning the room in preparation for the expected customers. These students, for example, might continue to be trained at the restaurant for another year or two, and then transition to a full-time restaurant job if they have learned the necessary skills. It was interesting for me to see kids who had seemed to struggle with significant functioning difficulties be able to apply themselves in a focused, attentive, careful, diligent way in the work setting.
I wondered if we were doing enough of this in the U.S. . . .
Families maintain a connection to CASP well beyond their children’s turning 18 or 21. CASP is a continuing and constant presence in the individual’s life. Parents understand that they, and not the school, need to be doing the heavy lifting with respect to the education, development, and growth of their children, but also know that CASP is there to continue providing support across all environments including work and home life.
Generalizing skills to the home
A parent applies the training he/she has received at CASP in the home. Examples that a parent shared with me during a home visit included speaking to the child in a way that allows the child to understand the rationale for doing something, maintaining consistency between what the parent does in the home with what the other teachers work on in school, and presenting a situation to the child so that the child must solve the problem by considering what needs to happen next to fix a particular situation (rather than just giving the child a direct instruction).
Parent support system
Parents believe that they are in it together, and they support each other along the way through regular parent support group sessions. They understand that they are part of a community of parents, children, staff members, and specialists who are joining together to ensure that each child is given an opportunity to succeed in the real world, in whatever way feasible for that individual, in order to become a contributing member to society. CASP is as ready to learn from the insights of a child's parents, as the parents are ready to learn from the teachers and staff. I think this validates the parents' concerns, and helps the school learn more about the child to better meet his/her needs.
The corporate side of supportive employment
Children who are considered individuals with disabilities in the U.S. are thought of as “children with different abilities” at CASP. The school devotes itself to identifying each child’s unique skills, abilities, and interests so that the school can cultivate them throughout the child’s attendance at CASP. And when that child is ready to start working, the school matches up the child’s skills, abilities, and interests with a job that fits. Both the individual and the employer receive ongoing support from CASP once that individual begins working. This form of "supportive employment" is a critical feature of the CASP program, and I believe it is also an essential component of preparing individuals with disabilities to become independent, self-sufficient, contributing members of society.
To understand this better, I met with corporate agents from Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Central Bank of Peru, two companies in Peru that employ individuals with disabilities. Both companies are happy to work with CASP because of the support and training that CASP provides. CASP teaches its students how to manage work-related situations and provides job coaches for on-site guidance throughout the day. For the corporations, this has resulted in tangible benefits to hiring people with different abilities.
What are we doing in the U.S. to transition our children with special needs to an employment setting?
After finishing up at CASP in Lima, I traveled to a city called Cusco, which gave me an opportunity to examine Peruvian education in a more rural setting. I also got a closer look at real poverty. While in Cusco, I learned from staff members about the various forces that a school might have to contend with such as parents who don’t want to be involved in their children's education, unhealthy environmental conditions of the schools, and kids being hidden from sight and not exposed to any form of education because of parents who are either uninformed or in denial. The corruption of past presidents whose actions have harmed local citizens, including accusing the teachers’ union of being terrorists and killing individuals who were studying to become teachers, has not helped matters.
Where the government fails, the private sector sometimes steps up to the plate. The same way this became obvious at CASP, it was also observable at Manos Unidas, a private special education school in Cusco for children with severe developmental disabilities. Manos Unidas, was started around 2007 in a small house as a result of the terrible special education conditions in Peru in general and Cusco in particular. The government does not provide any funding. Nevertheless, the school, located in a very quiet rural community overlooking the mountains, educates approximately 30-40 students. The classrooms are small. Children receive individualized attention (usually 2 teachers per classroom of 4-6 kids). Teachers use autism-specific methodologies, personalized daily schedules, and specialized communication systems. Approximately 20 students are currently enrolled in inclusion programs with the continued support of the Manos Unidas staff by their sides within the mainstream setting.
Reaching far-flung impoverished communities
On the subject of special education in rural Peru, I met the director of a project whose mission is to bring special education to children in distant rural communities. The organization behind the project deals with various areas of concern for individuals with disabilities of all ages including health, work, family life, and rehabilitation. The idea is to get these kids the additional supports that they need to become independent and productive citizens. She too spoke about how difficult it is to get money from the government. It's great that these types of schools and organizations exist, but it’s unfortunate that their work cannot reach more of the population due to their limited resources.
A global issue
These are global issues. CASP, for example, is influencing special education on a global scale through its research projects, its international conferences, and its efforts to spread awareness and to share the CASP model with other countries. Every country, even a world superpower like the U.S., could benefit from learning from Peru. On the one hand, the United States is so incredibly ahead of Peru in terms of civil rights, wealth and resources, government involvement, and availability of information. But still, schools in our country could learn a great deal from a school like CASP. The CASP model was recently adopted in Panama, where it is being implemented as part of a state-sponsored program. Representatives of the Dominican Republic were on site during my visit to learn more about how they could apply the model in their country. The CASP program was recently highlighted by the Chinese media (unfortunately my comprehension of the news segment was limited since it was in Chinese and without subtitles; the only words I could make out were “Ann Sullivan”). CASP has plans to expand to Africa.
This trip was a heady experience for me. Since returning home, my mind has been racing with thoughts and ideas about education and special needs. I hope to have the opportunity to arrange more trips of this kind in the future.