I’m Ba-ack!

This post is an explanation of my absence, and a preview to anticipated changes over the next several months.  Read on…

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything.  A few days ago, when I tried to enter a new post, I discovered it had disappeared.  All I could think about was years’ worth of data down the tubes.  Quite a bit of activity involving this site occurred during the past several months, it turns out, which collectively resulted in the site “going away” temporarily.  No, I didn’t miss any payments; and no, I didn’t accidentally wreck it myself. Here’s what happened.

Recently, this site was to be updated by someone, a professional site developer and marketing person who also happens to be a relative. Instead of being updated, the site was basically destroyed.  My suspicion is that the updater was less familiar with the site configuration than she believed herself to be.  Unfortunately, she did not want to admit this and made the classic “young person’s” mistake of not backing up the site before “updating” it.  I was afraid I would need to start all over again.  However, between WordPress and GoDaddy (where I host this site), enough backup information was available from the last successful post on this site that everything was restored.  (Hooray for WordPress and GoDaddy!!)  From now on, all changes will be done by me, regardless of my limited computing skills. Both companies offer plenty of resources and certified web site developers that, if I get frustrated, professional help is available.

Another reason for no activity here: a month or two ago, a serious illness knocked the wind out of my sails, leaving me unable to work much on the computer at all, much less at almost anything else.  Although I still have more “off” days than “on” ones, I’ve made the decision to concentrate on my blogs and the distribution of information related to education, and stop worrying about consulting.  There will be some changes to the way the site looks as well as the way the site operates.  However, the information will be as up to date as possible, and I hope to reach not only education professionals, but also parents and other professionals who work with children.  Features I hope to add include webinars and recorded videos targeted at learning problems and behavioral issues.  There will be guest blogging professionals, both in text and visual media.  Links to related reading and other materials and resources will be increased for your convenience.  These changes will take place gradually, so don’t expect everything at once.  As I said, I’m no longer a professional computing person, and it will take some time to get everything up to speed.  But updating this site will be as much a learning experience for me as a way to share what I know, especially about special education and behavioral issues.

So please bear with me as this site gradually develops into something more useful to all of us.  Thanks for your patience with me and support for the posts to date.  Without your readership, this blog would have folded long ago.

Watch for the changes!

Mostly, watch for my next posts that might be important to you and your students or offspring.

#educ_dr

St Maarten’s Education: An American’s Impressions–Part 2

University of St Maarten

University of St Maarten

A couple of months ago, I began to address the topic of education in St Maarten–specifically, special education (see previous post). At the time, I was going to review my notes, as well as check the local news for updated information. What I discovered over the next few days was that there was very little education-related news, and that there were no promised updates on the government web site. The official government pages do not contain much more than department contact information. [Click here for what passes as the official policy information page. (There are no public links beyond this page in either English or Dutch.)]

My attempts to learn more about official updates to education policy–or even news–have been rather futile. Except for a few special activities at specific schools–school or student awards, student activities, special events, charitable contribution presentations, etc.–information related to general elementary and secondary education policies and other government-related information has not appeared in local newspapers or government web pages for quite some time. Thus, what I have learned about education here in St Maarten comes primarily from “old” public and government information, much of which was uncovered during my original interest in the country’s education system; and through general conversation with island residents, both “recent” and “native.”

Here is what I have learned since my last post. Topics include general policy issues, ministry responsibilities, special education isolation, education funding, disappearance of “special education” language, teacher training, and “NCLB-like” programming policy.

  • There is much vague language in what apparently passes for educational policies in publicly available documentation. In fact, this information appears to be limited to the “about” page of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports Affairs. There appear to be no policy additions or modifications to the description of educational services on official Parliament ministry pages, except for some minor additions in Dutch which can only be found with much “digging.” Noteworthy here is that, although Dutch is the official language of the country of St Maarten, the lingua franca is English, as a very large portion of the population speaks Spanish, French, Tagalog, various dialects of India and Asia, etc., in home and community. Thus, the majority of the population can neither read nor comment on what little official education policy information is available because such policy is available only in the Dutch language. It should further be noted that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports Affairs is the only cabinet department that had not made an English language version of their policies available until recently, and that–to date–the “policy” is more of a wish list of overly-generalized education department “mission statements” and objectives.
  • Although one of the mission statements of the Ministry of Education (etc.) clearly addresses alignment of education with Dutch and international norms and practices, the lack of explicit language addressing special education services is like a black hole in the center of one’s living room where the coffee table used to be. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is because the goals and objectives also encompass the “culture, youth and sports affairs,” all of which may or may not be directly linked to educational outcomes per se. That no “Oxford comma” is present between “youth” and “sports” is also interesting, since–until recently–the version of English language instruction in St Maarten was British rather than American. What makes this interesting the disproportionately large financial resources that go to “culture” and “youth and sports” (or even “youth” and “sports”) as compared to resources budgeted for education. Since special education services are expensive, the lack of explicit language allows each individual school to offer or ignore resources to students with special needs. In a private chat with the current Minister of Education, Patricia Lourens, I learned that her estimate of special needs students in public education is closer to 40% than my church-affiliated school estimate of 20% to 25%. If Minister Lourens’ estimate is correct, then there is good reason to require that many special education services be available within the regular classroom. However, this would also require substantially better training for teachers through the local university, which attempts to offer special education “specialization” at the baccalaureate level as two courses, roughly equivalent to 6 credits or fewer at an American or Canadian university. (More on teacher preparation below.)
  • A school building originally slated to become a stand-alone school for behaviorally (and socially or emotionally) disturbed students continues to stand empty. Vacancy appears to be due to some disagreement as to who should administer the school–one of the numerous religious affiliations with elementary and/or secondary facilities, or the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports Affairs (official public/free education provider). That upgrades to the school whose purpose is to provide education to learning disabled students has been tentatively stopped may indicate that the government has plans to expand special education; or it may indicate that one of the country’s church-affiliated schools has “won” oversight of the building and the program(s) to be offered there.
  • Education funding has once again been cut severely for a variety of political and economic (openly legal or corruption-driven) reasons, including loss of tax revenue–but the latter will be discussed at some future time. Interestingly, a non-academics oriented high school has recently been awarded public funds that were “withheld” by the Ministry of Education (etc.) despite parliamentary budgeting for these funds. The local court apparently felt that it was illegal to cut funds from an already existing government budget.
  • The topic of special education appears to have all but vanished from any dialog related to public responsibility, so much so that the single school for learning disabled youth, the Prins Willem Alexander School (PWA), has not been mentioned in the press for months. Until the beginning of the current school year, special education services were provided by this single school site officially and specifically reserved for learning disabled students. The problems with the PWA are that 1) the classrooms are overloaded with students presenting with behavioral and emotional issues that cannot be addressed within regular education; 2) the average class size is reportedly 20; and 3) teachers have not trained to provide special education services. Other than the worst cases of learning or behavioral/emotional difficulties, special needs students are expected to be handled within the regular classroom with some support from individuals whose official function is to serve as liaisons between school and home. The reality is that this latter group tends to serve instead as individual or small-group tutors, often with responsibilities that go far beyond the official job description. This is especially true of church- or foundation-supported but publicly funded schools.
  • Teacher training and experience are inadequately defined by the Ministry’s education policy, allowing private and church-supported schools to hire as teachers individuals who are straight out of high school/secondary-level education institutions, without a single post-secondary (college or university level) credit to their resumes. Granted, once hired, the individual must register in a teacher preparation program and show continual progress toward credentialing/certification. Teacher qualification does not require the attainment of a bachelors degree, especially at the elementary level (to be honest, I am not sure that a bachelors degree is required for secondary level teaching, either, as information is not readily available). Other islands in the Caribbean have grown to appreciate the skills and knowledge base associated with teacher training through programs leading to a baccalaureate degree–especially those programs that include liberal arts as part of the curriculum–but I believe that education is not as important a topic in St Maarten as in larger Caribbean countries.
  • Despite apparent public documents in place prior to St Maarten’s declaration of independence from The Netherlands Antilles (“10/10/10″), teaching continues to be done to prepare elementary school students for official grade-level year-end exams and the “FBE” Exit Exams given in the final year of primary level schooling (equivalent to what in the US would be sixth-grade). The testing and education policies for which the testing was created more closely resemble US No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policies than anything else I have encountered in international education standards and practices. Since, in the US, almost every one of the 50 states has elected to return to federally approved state-developed curricula–implying that NCLB did not meet local education needs–the success of the current (and two decades old) Dutch-established education system will be interesting to further observe and evaluate. Observation might be entertaining, as even the Dutch have recently declared the parent of these practices to be a grave mistake.

What is becoming more and more clear to me as I interact with the citizens of this country is that parents are becoming more accepting of causes other than home for their child’s learning difficulties (specific learning disabilities, dyslexia and discalculia, attention disorders such as ADD and ADHD, autistic spectrum disorders, brain trauma, behavioral/emotional disturbances, etc.) and are asking why services to address such issues are not directly provided for their children.

It is unclear to me whether the lack of information related to education–especially education policy–is due to lack of further action because of funding or time constraints, the absence of forward movement, or the upcoming parliamentary elections which are tentatively scheduled for late August. As with many matters political, sometimes it is better to do nothing before elections and stand on one’s old record than risk statements and/or actions that may be deemed as sensitive or unpopular. However, candidates and incumbents for office should consider that not all their citizens are as willing as they were in the past to simply vote for the familiar names and faces. The younger voters are questioning whether their needs might be better served by political representatives who appear willing to be more responsive to the constituencies they would represent.

More on St Maarten education soon…

#educ_dr

 

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!

#educ_dr