By Ochan Kusuma-Powell and William Powell
Times change. Many years ago, when we first started our African adventure, the spouse of a school administrator leaned across the dinner table and said to us, "What, learning disabilities? Oh yes, it's just another excuse for laziness." This was a perception of learning disabilities that was prevalent in many international schools in Africa in the early '80's. It was difficult to find educators or administrators knowledgeable about children who learn differently, and for parents, even more difficult to find schools willing to accept such students and offer appropriate programs. And in those days, for teachers trained in special education, such jobs simply didn't exist in Africa.
To be fair, the perception of learning disabilities as a synonym for laziness or low ability was prevalent in many overseas and international schools, not just in Africa. Beliefs were common that such children had limited intelligence, less potential, were disruptive and would necessitate high costs. In addition, "many (international school) superintendents and school boards felt that if a school became known for serving students with learning disabilities, it would compromise its 'college preparatory' status (Advisory Committee on Exceptional Children and Youth,1998,p.2)."
Thankfully, international education in Africa has moved ahead from that earlier position. A 1997 survey of African international schools confirmed that over 70% of participating schools now have policies to admit children with special needs or who speak English as a second language (Kusuma-Powell, 1997). As educators, we now expect a wide range of abilities and learning styles in our classrooms, and also expect that some of our students will have learning disabilities or speak English as a second language, or be so highly capable that we have to be vigilant in order to maintain an appropriate level of educational challenge.
A new question has developed on our continent. How do international schools in Africa go about best serving the diverse students already in residence and those students who continue to seek admission to our schools?
We consider that a philosophical move towards inclusion will be helpful to international schools seeking an answer to this question - an orientation that builds on the premise that all children can and do learn and that all children have a right to belong.
What is inclusion, and why should we consider it? Let us first consider some pre-existing reasons for changing current practice and moving towards an inclusive framework:
International schools are here to stay. International schools are now an established, accepted feature of overseas living, often serving broader social and psychological functions than just the education of children. Unlike the early days of international education, parents more frequently investigate the school at their intended country of posting before accepting an employment contract, and while they do not expect to find the same school they are leaving behind, they do expect to find high quality, academically challenging, fully equipped schools with a fair offering of supporting services for exceptional students. Children come in all shapes, sizes and capabilities, and parents expect to take their children with them when they travel to overseas postings. This expectation is no longer the exception and will increase as business and industry continue to globalize. We see this in the range of students now applying to our schools.
Parents continue to move abroad, responding to job incentives and searching for international experiences for their families. A dynamic tension is created in international school communities as parents adapt to their new roles - perhaps with one spouse unemployed for the first time and having to adjust to being without a previous sense of autonomy - and suddenly, the school becomes a focal point of interest where it may not have been at home. For some expatriate parents, the school becomes more than just a place to educate one's children. It becomes a surrogate "community," a replacement for the network of friends and family that have been left behind.
Hargreaves (1997) identifies the onset of a 'crisis of community' in the developed world, as individuals struggle to recreate a sense of community, meaning, support and fellowship for themselves. He goes on to discuss the potential of schools to resolve the crisis. In many cases, international schools around the world have already come to serve as community centers and it is not uncommon to find social functions, sporting events, adult extension courses and afternoon clubs and activities being hosted or offered on school premises.
Regardless of ability, students come with different interests, family lifestyles and preferences about schools and learning. They have unique linguistic and socio-economic backgrounds, each shaped by a distinct cultural heritage. And finally, each student has a different way of thinking and knowing about the world which may emphasize strengths in music, language, mathematics, motor knowledge or other multiple forms of intelligence (Armstrong, 1994; Gardner, 1993).
International schools are here to stay and must be responsive to the needs of the client group.
We need to develop our own resourcefulness. For centuries, the word "Africa" has conjured up exotic images in the minds of many. From Coleridge's Abyssinian maid to the search for King Solomon's Mines or the Mountains of the Moon, artists, poets and now the media have captured an essence of Africa that communicates the rarefied, the fascinating, and the mysterious. But those of us who live in or who have lived in Africa understand that much of what is captured as exotic is due in large part to our geographical location and resulting isolation. Travel to Africa is hard, and travel within Africa is harder still. Among the ironies of living on the continent is that it is easier to telephone London or New York from Dar es Salaam than it is to call Nairobi in neighboring Kenya.
Many of our international schools on the continent are small and isolated, struggling to maintain intermittent communication links with other schools in Africa and the rest of the world. Such geographic conditions speak to the need for developing a supportive network within the Association of International Schools in Africa (AISA) which will allow us to serve as consulting experts to each other, as well as developing our own resourcefulness as individual schools. In the words of Tanzania's founding president Julius Nyerere, we need to develop self-reliance. Europe, North America and sometimes even the school in the country next door are too far away to provide timely help on the ground as and when it is required.
Separate is not equal. Historically, U.S. and U.K. education has moved towards greater inclusivity from the time general education was established as accepted practice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. First women, and then other minority groups were included in the scope of general education and assured of their right to schooling. In 1954, we see the antecedents of the U.S. Civil Rights movement in the recognition that separate schooling for minority groups was not equivalent because of the projection and reinforcement of an inferior self-concept onto the minority group:
Separateness in education can 'generate a feeling of inferiority as to [children's]
status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely
ever to be undone. This sense of inferiority . . . affects the motivation of a child to
learn . . . [and] has a tendency to retard . . .educational and mental development."
Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren (1954)
writing in the landmark decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, Topeka
The natural sequel to this landmark ruling did not occur until the 1970's, when the United Kingdom approved the Education for Handicapped Children's Act (1971) and the US Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142, 1975) and extended the decision for free and appropriate schooling to children with disabilities. With PL 94 - 142 and its reauthorization in 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), disabled children were conclusively included in the overall picture of public education (Smith, Polloway, Patton & Dowdy, 1995).
There is now evidence of a growing number of national school systems that are also moving towards an inclusive model of education, e.g. in Italy and Scotland (Cornoldi, Terreni, Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1998; MacBride, 1997). As recently as 1986, Senator Edward Kennedy referred to the handicapped and disabled in America as "the last bastion of segregation" (in Villa & Thousand, 1995, p. 24).
Separate programs have not worked well. Despite the landmark decisions and periodic reviews, however, basic assumptions about special education students remain. "School personnel, the families of school children, and even students themselves unquestionably believe:
• That students are responsible for their own learning;
• That, when students don't learn, there is something wrong with them; and
• That the job of schools is to determine what's wrong with as much precision as possible,
so that students can be directed to the tracks, curricula, teachers, and classrooms that
match their learning-ability profiles (Ferguson, 1995, p. 282)."
Traditionally, services for children with special needs (learning disabilities or ESL) have been based on a deficit/remediation model, with the idea that these children somehow owned a problem - a disability - that needed to be fixed. The special educator was charged with doing just that in a setting removed from the regular classroom, often in individualized or very small group situations, with the goal of returning the children to the mainstream as soon as they were ready. Much of the work done in these withdrawal situations was shrouded in mystery, frequently resulting in "turf wars" between special educator and the regular classroom teacher, who did not have the skills to work with one another. At times, programs were so separate and schedules so rigid that the regular class teacher relinquished responsibility for specific aspects of the exceptional child's education.
An extreme example of the absurd possibilities of such a situation occurred several years ago when we identified a young 6th grade Somali boy receiving support from the Learning Disabilities and English as a Second Language departments as well as specialized reading assistance from the Reading Department. However, after identifying this student, it was virtually impossible to locate him! Hassan was receiving so much specialist support that he had "disappeared" beneath it in his movement from one specialist service to another. His homeroom teacher did not know him as anything but a name in her attendance register and as an occasional irritation she had to think about on those rare occasions when he wasn't being pulled out of her class. And none of his other teachers knew him beyond the 40 minute allotments twice or three times weekly when Hassan visited them for program assistance.
While Hassan represents an extreme case of a child 'disappearing' in a plethora of fragmented specialized support programs, other students were also "lost" within the structure of pull-out programs which intrinsically prevented holistic responsibility for the child.
Those of us who have been involved in a daily routine of individualized education also know how difficult it was to sustain quality education in such intensive situations. Much of the attention in withdrawal programs was focused on skills, rather than concepts, and was commonly unrelated to the curriculum content of the regular class. Skills taught in such isolation were perceived as irrelevant and the drills used to teach them were tedious and boring and had the potential to lead to a negative perception of schooling and learning. In addition to the negative social aspects of being removed from class, missing out on academic content became an almost insurmountable obstacle for children's reintegration into regular classrooms on those rare occasions when they were considered "ready" to return. Unfortunately, given the transient nature of our international school populations, many of these children also left the school long before remediation or reintegration could take effect.
The intention of pull-out programs was not wrong. While some children did benefit from the specialized attention they received in withdrawal lessons, many others were unable to realize the potential of such programs. Two major problems prevented this type of service delivery from realizing the quality of service it had been designed to deliver:
1. The premise that children owned a problem that needed fixing: We now recognize that
a learning disability is a lifelong condition that precludes the idea of "fixing." Coping strategies can be acquired, but one is never 'cured' from learning differently. Moreover, the content that students missed during these withdrawal sessions was not easily retrievable and set up greater barriers to "catching up" with the rest of the class. The special education teacher had a prescribed program to follow, based on test results and the student's Individualized Education Plan, just as the class teacher had a prescribed curriculum to follow. The two separate and at times competing educational agendas (for youngsters who had difficulty coping with one) almost always ensured continued placement in the alternative, special education program.
2. The rigidity of the structure and fragmentation of withdrawal programs: Withdrawal services came to be considered the only option. Special education was seen less as a service than as a place down the hall that children disappeared into for several hours each week. Regular classroom teachers rarely knew what went on in the 'resource room.' At the same time, special educators created for themselves a vocabulary of quasi-medical terms which furthered the 'mystique' of special education. As a result, a child's progress and placement rarely received collaborative evaluation. Because of the mystique surrounding special education programs, because of the lack of connection between the special education program and the regular classroom, and because student programs were counted in hours, once a child's program was set in the timetable, it became very difficult to change.
These are the fundamental problems that cause us to move towards an inclusive philosophical orientation.