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Diplomacy in Action

Chapter 3: The American International School of Johannesburg - A Case Study


By Maureen Gale

The following case study shows how the American International
School of Johannesburg set up a Resource Program to serve the
needs of exceptional children. This is one of several program models
to be found in international schools in Africa.

I arrived in South Africa in August, 1995; one year after Nelson Mandela began his presidency in a nation beginning its journey towards democracy and equal rights and found a country with high expectations, the desire to work toward improving educational practices, and providing opportunities for all. It was in this context that I entered the American International School of Johannesburg with its fledgling population of 230 students. I had been hired the previous spring to plan and implement the first special needs program in the school's history.

AISJ had endured difficult times during the apartheid era with its resulting international boycott. However, I found a school board, parents, teachers and even students openly excited about launching a new program to assist students with special needs. It was an exciting and rewarding program development opportunity. I had found a meaningful challenge and, of course, also a new home.

"What a world this would be if we just built bridges instead of walls." Carlos Ramirez

Prior to 1995, direct service to AISJ students with special needs was limited to speech and language therapy. A speech/language therapist was contracted in 1992/93 to screen all new elementary school students. Students identified as needing help were provided therapy in school during the regular academic day. Parents received an evaluation and the therapist and class teacher met monthly to discuss progress and interventions. This arrangement continued for the next three school years. Students with moderate to severe academic or behavioral difficulty were referred to community agencies for psycho-educational evaluations and, in some cases, were asked to seek alternative educational placements.

In 1994/95, a group of AISJ parents approached the Board of Directors and requested a new position be established. The person holding this position would be charged with developing a K - 12 program to provide support for students experiencing academic and/or behavioral difficulties and students with identified special needs. The position was approved and I was fortunate enough to be appointed to fill it.

In August 1995, the speech/language therapist and I teamed up to begin the Resource Program. We began by evaluating returning students and providing services to students referred by teachers and parents. Several inservice workshops were presented to the staff, focusing on pre-referral strategies, learning disabilities, identifying students with special needs, ADHD, modifying classroom requirements for special needs students and behavioral and social skill development. I worked with each teacher individually and established guidelines for the provision of services to his or her students. In January 1996, we introduced occupational therapy as a component of the program. At the same time, the administration, the counselor and I teamed up to develop admissions policies and procedures that matched the school's curricular expectations. We also began to survey the community to locate tutors, assessment centers, support groups and educational psychologists.

In the second year of the program, we continued to further define and document our admissions criteria and Resource Program guidelines. In August, 1996, we were able to add a teaching assistant to the department and with the additional staffing, were able to support the needs of a growing student population and initiate an after-school Homework Club. We also began to offer study skills and social skills lessons within the classroom setting. Due to a large increase in enrollment at AISJ that year, a second special education position was approved for the following year.

We began the third year of the Resource Program with an emphasis on building-level support. A Middle School Counselor was hired and I was able to focus more direct support to the elementary program. Our new resource teacher provided support primarily in the high school, while our teaching assistant helped middle school youngsters. As coordinator of the program, I was also responsible for the administration of the budget and processing student referrals. I continued to provide the elementary Principal with admissions support and evaluated all students K - 12 as requested. During the 1997/98 school year, we continued Homework Club, speech and language screenings and support, and occupational therapy. We also focused on further development of our Student Support Team meetings within the elementary and secondary schools.

In June, 1998, we held AISJ's first Winter School Program. Modeled after enrichment and summer school programs in the USA, the Winter School Program was attended by 28 students. The program was staffed primarily by members of the Resource Program Team and ran for four weeks during the school holidays. Tuition surplus generated by this program totaled approximately $2,000 and was used during the 1998/99 school year to subsidize psycho-educational evaluations, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy for students participating in the Resource Program.

In our fourth year, we participated in a strategic planning process initiated by our new Director as part of the school's accreditation for growth planning. The process included an intensive review of both the Resource Program and our admissions procedures and policies, and following discussion, new goals and objectives were recommended, presented to the Board of Directors, and approved for the following school year.

At the same time, the Director and I presented a formal proposal to the Board of Directors to include students with identified learning disabilities in our school. We met with the Board's Curriculum and Instruction Committee and outlined the range of services we could comfortably provide. We also presented a plan to add a "Resource Program Supplement" to the tuition fees of students admitted with identified special needs. The Board of Directors approved both of these proposals in February, 1999.

The Strategic Planning Committee work kept us busy during the 1998/99 school year, but we still managed to provide direct support to approximately 80 students, 50 teachers and many parents. We added a second speech and language therapist as a consultant and in collaboration with our ESL department began a series of Parent Information Evenings. The Homework Club continued for the third year and we had two parents support meetings. In October 1998, the new administration approved our proposal for additional staff to meet the needs of our increased elementary population. In January of 1999, the elementary school opened its new library and we were provided with office/classroom space for Resource Program staff.

In June of 1999, we again offered the Winter School Program. The number of students participating increased to 48 and our surplus totaled approximately $9,000. Once again, we were able to cover the costs of therapies and evaluations for the 1999/2000 school year. The additional profits will be allocated to classroom teachers who request resource program grants.

We are now in Year Five. Our total school population is 495, including four students with programming plans under the new Resource Program Tuition Supplement Admission Criteria. We have five full time staff members, three with degrees in special education, two speech and language therapists and two occupational therapists who serve as consultants during the school day.

I have been told that it takes between three to five years to establish a program and my own experience confirms this. We are continually improving what we do and how we do it. We have made some mistakes along the way and learned from them. We have also taken the time to celebrate our successes. We applaud the parents who provide us with information during the admissions process and have compassion for the parents who are in the early stages of the diagnostic process. We applaud the teachers who take on these challenges so willingly; even when they openly admit they're on a steep, special needs learning curve!

So where do we go from here? Our direction has been firmly set through our accreditation process. We adopted our strategic Belief Statements and wrote objectives to help us realize these goals in practice. We started our inservice this year with a new Resource Program - Reference Handbook for Teachers. We are serving students with a variety of intervention options; we are taking care to support parents, and we are sharing ideas with our colleagues. In short, we are excited about what we can contribute this year and about what we can learn.

So where do you go from here, if you are considering initiating a special needs program at your school? The next section of this chapter will outline some of the strategies that we have used, the program areas we have emphasized, the questions you should be asking yourself along the way, and the type of support systems you will need to have in place to initiate this type of program development.

Go for it . . .

                                                 "I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike."

Maya Angelou

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