By Areta Williams and William Powell
Programs for "special needs" in international schools will ideally be established and maintained as a result of policy statements that establish the rationale, philosophy, admissions policy, communication strategies, training program and funding for them.
What is policy, and how is it different from procedure?
For the purpose of this chapter, we shall define policy as a general, written statement which is adopted by the school's governing body (Board of Directors) which effects the mission of and the educational services provided by the school. Policy statements are written for the entire school community - the students, the parents and teachers and must therefore be public and well-publicized. Policies should be written for the medium to long term and should be relatively difficult to change.
Policy documents provide the order and structure for the organization. They are the institutional memory, the habits of good practice, the statements of values, beliefs and commitment. There is great power and authority in well-thought out, written policy. (It is no coincidence that on his return from Mt. Sinai, Moses had the Ten Commandments in written form.)
While also in written form, procedures focus on the specifics of how we implement policy. Procedures, designed by those doing the implementation (teachers, special educators, administrators, etc.), should be reviewed regularly and should be easy to change and amend. Examples of procedures might include the specific steps in the admission of a new student, or how a student is referred for special needs screening.
Without question, the most important policy document in any organization is its mission statement.
Rationale for a School Mission Statement:
School mission statements should ideally state the purpose of the school and establish what clientele it serves. International and American schools abroad have often grown and changed focus over the years, to the extent that the mission statement of the school may no longer reflect its actual character. The growing awareness of the nature of learning handicaps has prompted many schools to initiate programs that begin to address the needs of all students enrolled in the school. Efforts range from the hiring of staff to assist a few students (particularly ESL) in smaller schools, to fully developing special needs programs, incorporating gifted education, ESL, and learning disabilities support in larger schools. All of this may have emerged as a result of a change of mission statement, but more often, programs are started in the absence of clear direction from school policy.
School boards seeking to establish a policy framework to support its special programs will need to review their Mission Statement to ensure that the language of the statement actually reflects the school's mission and clearly defines its intended clientele. Schools that operate in isolated areas where they may be the only option for a specific clientele should decide whether they are meant to serve the community as a whole or can afford to be more selective in admitting students. Some considerations should include the availability of other appropriate schools in the region and the availability of outside academic support services in the community.
Philosophy Statement: What do we believe about children and learning?
Closely following the direction set by the Mission Statement should be the school's belief statements about educating children. Schools whose mission statements are inclusive of a broad community will want to ensure that their philosophy encompasses the accompanying beliefs about education - particularly the belief that children learn in different ways - and a statement of the school's intent to adapt itself to the needs of all its children.
Mission Statement for Exceptional Children:
Many schools have found it helpful in the development of an educational program for exceptional children to construct a Mission Statement focused specifically on this area. Some important aspects that should be included in such a Mission Statement are:
- A description of the population of exceptional students that the school is able to serve (e.g. mild to moderate learning disabilities);
- A brief description of the exceptionalities that the school is unable to serve (e.g. severe mental, physical or emotional handicaps);
- A description of the specific programs that the school will provide (e.g. inclusion, resource room, etc. - Figure 1 contains an example of a network of special services for exceptional students);
- A statement of the goal(s) of the program (e.g. "the overall goal of the Special Services program is to provide the individual student with the support necessary for him or her to achieve maximum learning success and challenge in mainstream classes");
- A focus on the nature of the relationship between educators working within the program - class teachers and learning specialists (e.g. collaboration, consultation, co-planning and/or co-teaching);
- A statement about the role of the parents in the program (e.g. their specific rights and responsibilities);
- A commitment to ongoing professional development for all educators;
- A statement of how admissions, class placement and promotion/retention decisions are made, and by whom, e.g. Child Study Team, administration, etc.; and
- A notation specifying if there is an age or grade level cut-off (high school) for the admission of beginning ESL students.
One of the most complex and potentially controversial documents in any school is the admissions policy.
Closely following its Mission Statement and Philosophy is the school's admissions policy, which in practice communicates the mission and philosophy to the community. Schools which claim to have "open" admissions may, in fact, be quite restrictive. Therefore, it is essential that the admissions policy be as specific as possible in carrying out the school mission and philosophy by delineating who it intends to serve. This requires the school staff to define the extent to which it is willing and able to serve exceptional children: ESL, Learning Disabled and the Highly Capable. For example, some schools use the results of a standardized admissions screening test - "Students who score two years below grade level on the admissions screening will not be considered for admission." Other schools use a more holistic approach: "Special services are available to those students who are able to participate successfully in a mainstream class with limited specialist support." There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.
While not a part of policy per se, it is often helpful to construct an admissions flow chart which details each step in the process and who has specific responsibility for what. Figure 2 is an example of such a flow chart from one of the larger international schools in Africa.
SAMPLE ADMISSION FLOW CHART
It is also very helpful to have a checklist for signs of potential learning problems in new admissions. Please see Chapter 3 for an example of such a checklist developed by Maureen Gale from the American International School of Johannesburg.
All the school literature should clearly state the scope and nature of special support programs offered in the school, from recruitment information for new staff, to school catalogues, brochures for parents, and school handbooks. It is essential that not only the families who receive special services but the community as a whole understand what the special programs are about, as the impact will be felt by all students. Misconceptions about these programs frequently arise, particularly when the number of students served by special programs increases, and concerns about possible negative impact on other students develop. A proactive public relations effort about the role of special programs from the board level is an essential foundation to the successful implementation of any special program.
Referrals and Documentation:
It is essential that teachers, parents and the students themselves (particularly in the middle and high school) know how the referral process works. Effective referrals balance a formal and informal approach. Whatever can be achieved informally should be. Formal psycho-educational assessment is extremely time consuming and expensive. Figure 3 contains a sample referral procedure that employs such a balanced approach.
SAMPLE REFERRAL PROCEDURE
As teachers become concerned about particular students in their classes, they may wish to consider the academic or social behaviors which give rise to their concerns. At this stage, the class teacher gathers background information about the student. If concerns persist, the class teacher may then wish to consult with a member of the Student Services team. Any member of staff may request a consultation with Student Services Personnel; in addition, consultations may be initiated by parents or by the students themselves.
After the advisory session and after a period of monitoring, the Student Services personnel and the person requesting the consultation may decide that a formal referral is necessary; if so, a referral form is completed and discussed with the appropriate principal at this time.
The Student Services staff then undertake the process of screening to verify and define the problem. Once this data is collected, a meeting of the Child Study Team is called to review the case. The Child Study Team may request further information and seek a more in-depth evaluation of the child. In such cases, a collaborative assessment is undertaken.
The Child Study Team then discusses and recommends an intervention plan, including the type of service delivery and a time to evaluate or review progress. In some cases, a specific academic support plan may be worked out between the regular class teacher, the Student Services team member, the parents and the student him/herself when appropriate. This school is committed to collaborative and consultative interventions, with cooperation between the regular class teacher, Student Services and the home.
Figure 4: SAMPLE ACADEMIC SUPPORT PLAN
Name: __________________________________ Teacher: _______________________________
DOB: _________________CA: _______________Grade: _________________________________
Initiated: ________________________________ Date: ___________________________________
Areas of Strength: Areas of Concern:
Curriculum Area Objectives Techniques/Strategies & Materials
Participants' Signatures: ______________________________________
In some cases, it will be necessary to develop a specific learning plan for an individual student. This plan should be in written form and should form part of the student's permanent record. Commonly referred to as an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or Academic Support Plan, these documents should be as simple and user friendly as possible. A sample Academic Support Plan is found in Figure 4.
Schools which establish special needs programs must ensure that inservice training funds are provided for the training of all staff to work with special students, their families, and with the special needs staff. This component is often overlooked or ceded to the special needs staff, but should more appropriately take place in the early days of the establishment of a special program and then become an ongoing feature of the school's professional development program. (Please see Chapter 3 for a list of initial inservice topics and Chapter 11 for ongoing Professional Development.)
It goes without saying that funding for all of these programs must be provided. Unfortunately, while the proverbial spirit may be willing, smaller schools are often unable to provide funding for specialist staff or inservice training and particularly if they are in remote areas, may also be under the most pressure to accommodate special needs students. This dilemma is particularly acute where other options are unavailable locally. Regional associations may wish to consider setting up a system of itinerant specialists who can visit regional schools for evaluation and training on a regular basis.
Given the relatively high turnover of teachers and administrators in international and American overseas schools, it is imperative that the philosophy and structure of special needs programs be codified in written policies that are approved and adopted at the highest level of governance. This will "institutionalize" support for exceptional children and provide a continuity of services that will be sustained despite the transient nature of international school staff.
 We are indebted to our friend and colleague, Areta Williams, for drafting this chapter.