St Maarten’s Education: An American’s Impressions–Part 1

Teacher Talk is back.

For almost a year now, I’ve been living on the island of St. Martin in the Caribbean. I did not want to come here, to be so far away from my family and friends–not so much distance-wise as…well, there’s a sea of water between me and “home.”  Part of it was that I was afraid of being on a tiny speck of land on the very edge of the Caribbean Sea, with the eastern coast of the island bordering the Atlantic Ocean. It’s not that I fear hurricanes–as long as we’re prepared, we can survive quite nicely, thank you very much–it’s that I realized I am not comfortable with the enormity of the surrounding water. Many people love the freedom, the solitude, the relationship with natural forces that can only be experienced on the high seas. I am not one of them.

Philipsburg, St Maarten

Several weeks flew by before I decided to learn a bit more about the country of St Maarten (the southern country of the island), and a while longer went by before I made a reasonable foray into the French side. I started to fall in love–with the pace, with the people, with the place. Mostly, I fell in love with the kids. But that came a bit later…

Not long after arriving here, when we finally got our internet connection going and Google accepted the fact that I am outside the boundaries of the US, I started exploring the government files of the country, with a particular interest in the education system. First, I need to point out that St Maarten became its own country on 10/10/10. It is still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but is no longer actually part of the Netherlands Antilles–not technically, anyway.  That makes the country very young.  Unlike some of the larger islands of the Kingdom, when St Maarten became independent the government ministries could make the choice of adapting the Dutch policies or starting from scratch.  One of the areas that tossed everything Dutch was the Ministry of Education (and other stuff).  So, when I searched for information about school policies and programs, all I found online was a couple of paragraphs which basically said very little.

Since my specialties have always revolved around special education–reading, learning disabilities, social/emotional/behavioral issues–I was shocked to discover that very little was being done for children with special needs.  Parents kept telling me there is one school for learning disabled children in the country, and that it is overcrowded and understaffed.  Then I discovered that most, if not all, of the teachers and educational assistants in this school had any training at all in special education.  The local college offers a couple of courses that address special needs, but anyone back home with credentials in special education can tell you that two–even three–is completely inadequate to even begin to address all of the exceptionalities.  Most current special educators in the US and Canada (and much of the world) have been trained at the graduate level, so they know the intensity of the preparation programs.  To hear that one can be a special education specialist here with only a couple of courses is hard to believe.  To learn that such courses have been added only within the past year makes it even more astounding.

Now, the official population of St Maarten is about 40,000 people; there are estimates that the illegal immigrants double that, but no one is really certain. Regardless, for me, the country of St Maarten is the second-smallest town or city I have ever lived in.  And the people with deep roots in the island are among the nicest people I have ever met.  Many of the residents are here legally, and have come from surrounding islands.  As in any mixed society, each community has its own cultural ethos, even though they all share common elements of a Caribbean culture.  There are also a lot of people here of Indian and Filipino heritage, as well as people from the US, Canadian, and various South American countries. There are many South Africans here as well, both Dutch and British.  And, of course, the French side has its own mix of peoples.

In all, the entire island is culturally much like Los Angeles, where I had just lived for 13 years.  Interestingly, the entire island would fit comfortably within the borders of Los Angeles, too. But just as New York City and Los Angeles are very different, so is each Caribbean island.

Now that you have a bit of an idea about the island, I’ll sign off.  But don’t worry–I won’t leave you hanging about education and special education in St Maarten.  It’s just that I don’t want you to get bored with long-winded posts.

Until next time!