Basilla Joseph is a Saint Lucian educator who believes “no child should be left behind.” Not only does she talk the particular talk, but she also walks the walk. Joseph is the principal of the Special Education Centre in Vieux Fort, overseeing the special needs of over 100 children from the south of the island. And although conditions at the school are hardly the best, still she perseveres in the hope that someday the children in her care and hundreds of others across the island will be seen as “our children” and given a fighting chance to live as normally as possible.
“I have been here four years now,” she told the STAR, “and despite the challenges, I feel a sense of pride in doing what it takes to assist these students.” She pointed out that there are one hundred and two children at the centre, between the ages of one and twenty-one years, even though it was built to accommodate only sixty to seventy students. “So right away you can see we have space problems,” she said.
The school caters to children with physical and learning disabilities, as well as children who are autistic. On staff there are sixteen teachers and three aides. From time to time US Peace Corps and Japanese volunteers help out. The teachers, like the students, have to make do without a staff room or sick bay. And while the government supports the institution with an annual subvention, the principal and staff are constantly knocking on the doors of corporate Saint Lucia for help.
A sensory room at the school was outfitted with the assistance of Digicel. “In this room we are able to assist the students that are overactive but less stimulated and those more stimulated but less active.” And while these special students need adequate playtime, their playground is far from ideal. It becomes water logged following the slightest downpour.
In April Joseph was selected by the US Embassy to attend an International Visitors’ Leadership Program (IVLP) in the United States. The Piaye resident was one of eight educators from the Eastern Caribbean who took part in the three-week project on the “Education of the Exceptional Child.” (Exceptional children is an inclusive term that refers to children across “the spectrum of exceptionalism,” including those with cognitive and/or behavior problems, children with physical disabilities or sensory impairments, and children who are intellectually gifted or possess special talents.
The IVLP is the State Department’s premier professional exchange program and its objective is to expose participants to new ways of effectively designing curricula and utilizing differentiated instruction that address the needs of an important minority, the exceptional children.
“While in the US we visited several different states,” Joseph revealed, “going to Washington DC; Boston; Iowa; Jacksonville, Mississippi and New Orleans where we had a comprehensive overview of the best practices that exist in the US with regards to children with special needs.
“We also looked at some of the laws that the Federal government introduced for persons with disabilities, including the American Disabilities Act which speaks to non-discrimination toward persons with disabilities. But what stood out for me was the compulsory school age for all children, including those with disabilities, which is three years to twenty one years.” In Saint Lucia that age range is 5-18.
“However,” Joseph went on, “if like the US it is 3 years, one can have an early assessment of the child and provide early intervention if something is detected.
“We also looked at the inclusion of every child, disabled or not, being included in a normal school system, with support of course. In some States, every child follows the normal curriculum, as these children are fully integrated with the help of adaptive devices, resource persons, nurses, doctors and Special Ed teachers.”
Another eye opener for Basilla Joseph: “In New Orleans we learned about these Charter Schools that have become the responsibility of the community that comes together to rescue failing schools.” It is her hope that someday Saint Lucia will develop into a more caring community that sees Special Education schools as part of its social responsibility.
The principal of the Vieux Fort Special Education Centre, upon her return from the US, submitted a report to the Ministry of Education. While she awaits discussion and feedback, she has her own wish list. “We definitely need more money and more resources,” she said. “Sometimes, while a teacher is in a class with five children she may need to take one to the washroom. We have children as old as ten who are not potty-trained and these things push our human resources to the limit.”
The school is also hoping to become fully ICT integrated in September. “We also need a safe play area and, of course, more space,” Joseph repeated. “Almost every day we get calls from parents and even principals with requests for interventions. There is a multiple disciplinary team evaluating children and even then there is a waiting list.
The school principal regretted that while the ministry of education has the institution on its bus program, some parents are still unable to access this; they live too far from the bus routes. In some poverty stricken areas many cannot even afford the EC$10 a month requested by the school to feed their children, she said.
“We have a school feeding program and government gives us rice, flour, sugar and meats. But we have to supplement that in order to give the children a healthy balanced meal. So we ask parents for the ten dollars to compliment that and some of them tell you straight they cannot afford it. We still feed all of our children and do the best we can for them.”
Despite the obstacles and the odds, Basilla Joseph still is hoping for better days. She is proud of the strides some of the students have made with the help of her dedicated staff.
They have had success in football against the Vieux Fort Primary School and some are skilled in art and craft, selling greeting cards, bookmarks and medical record books to persons in the community.
“My dream is that one day we will all open our eyes and realize these are all our children,” she reiterated. “They are a gift to us, they are special and deserve our special attention, love and the best facilities to live normal, happy lives.”