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!


Dangerous Speakers

It’s been another long time since I’ve blogged at all. Here’s something that I simply cannot ignore. It’s a post I shared on Facebook, so anyone following me there will remember reading it. Right now I’m a bit too bogged down to do more than share an experience I wrote about elsewhere. It deals with seminars that are presented by people who do not know their topic–in this case, special education in general and dyslexia in particular. Sadly, out of perhaps 50 or 60 attendees, 2 were “just parents” (who were the intended audience to start with) and the rest were equally diviided between practicing teachers (some of whom I recognized and know they are talented teachers struggling with special needs children in their own classes) and pre-service teachers who are anxious to learn more about dyslexia. Well, you can figure out the rest of the problem. I’m also going to post this on my other blog site to widen the audience. This is really a sad situation that is becoming sadder. If you want to read about any chatter from my Facebook friends related to this, I believe I publically shared my observations; hopefully you can see the responses as well. I’m Dr.EllieM on Facebook, and have a page called EMiller Education Consulting. Feel free to comment here or on the other venues. Right now, I’m not in the States; I’m in the new country of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean. Sint Maarten is the Dutch half of the island; St. Martin is the French half (If you ask a St. Martiner their nationality, you will always get “French.”).

Again, this is the start of a whole new phase for me. I will be using the educational system in Sint Maarten as an example of what politics can do to education in a country with a total population of roughly 50,000. And yes, that’s tens of thousands.

So… Have to share this: As you know, I have been trying to understand the educational system here on Sint Maarten, specifically special education. I’ve been volunteering services in what in California would be called a non-public school–a privately run school supported by public education funds. Because of the public funding, the school I am “helping” has to follow all curricular work as set out by the government for fully public schools. Wow, am I learning a lot, but that’s not what I want to share. What I want to share sheds some light on why education here is so screwed up.
Last night, my neighbor and I attended (or maybe “visited” is the better word) a seminar on dyslexia in the Caribbean. The event, intended for parents, was populated with teachers and teachers-in-training here on the island. Only 2 parents were in the audience that filled the room so thoroughly that we ended up sitting on a table at the back of the room with several other attendees. (I was execting the tables to collapse at any moment, since there were about 8 of us sitting “Indian style” in two rows, as there was no floor space to stand.) The speaker claims to have taught special education for 20 years, and spent the summer island hopping to become an “expert” in dyslexia. Since schools are shut down during the six-week summer break, and since there were many islands visited, I can only surmise that the expertise was gained primarily from seminars. Deon, my neighbor, has a daughter who was diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, and other problems that contributed to her learning difficulties, and–since the special education services on the island are minimal (if you can call some of them services at all)–his children and their mother moved back to South Africa so that the daughter could reap the benefits of a real special education program. So Deon knows quite a bit about dyslexia, learning disabilities and difficulties, ADD/ADHD, etc. OK. That’s background info on him, and most of you already know mine. So here’s the story–a really sad one, if you ask me.
Within 5 minutes of listening to this dynamic speaker give her schpiel, Deon became very restless and stood up as well as he could next to the table. By then, I was already reviewing my notes on a child I’ve been observing. But he didn’t say anything about leaving, so I just kept organizing notes. Then I thought I misheard an explanation about dyslexic children being unable to translate a photograph into anything more than a two-dimentianal depiction. Since raising my hand to ask a question was impossible, I just blurted out, “Excuse me, I was writing and may have missed something. Are you still talking about dyslexia?” She responded, “Yes, that’s how dyslexic children see the world.” That was it. I thanked her for her response, apologized again for the interruption, closed my notebook and stuffed it in my purse, told Deon I needed to go out and have a smoke, if I could wade through the sea of seated educators/future educators. Deon said he had no further reason to stay, and would I mind going home? All I could do was feel grateful that I he, too, had had enough.
From almost the first sentence that came out of the speaker’s mouth, it was clear that she had no idea what she was talking about–not in her capacity of general special education teacher, and least of all in her “expertise” in dyslexia. In that first 5 minutes, more misinformation was delivered than even Fox News could spew. (Apologies to those who enjoy Fox News; I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Stewart, Colbert, and Maher critiquing their news items.) Yet, the teachers and pre-service teachers ate up every word, because 1) she was an outstanding and engaging presenter; and 2) the need by island educators for information on any special education is so great that they will lap up anything.
This is how Sint Maarten operates. That a total charlatan can misinform the very people who are responsible for helping children with special needs is an affront to education anywhere in the free world. The school system here–despite many wonderful and caring teachers who are limited in what they can do by a frigging script (!) that must be followed to the letter if the teachers want to continue teaching–scrapped the plan instituted by The Netherlands long before the Sint Maarten gained its independence on 10/10/10, and has yet to publish anything online that addresses policies, by-laws, objectives and goals, or even a solid vision statement. I personally went to an agency the other day to learn what its role is in special education placement, and was told that there is nothing in writing. When I asked for copies of the forms that are used for referral, I was told that each school had been sent 10 copies a year ago, and that I should procure one from them. When I asked how long a referral takes, I was told that REFERRALS ARE ONLY ACCEPTED IN NOVEMBER!!!!! A bit more discussion yielded the information that the department doesn’t have any real idea of what services it can actually provide and how decisions are made!!!
The Parliament last week finally passed a balanced budget. Any guesses where the money eventually came from? Had I mentioned previously that the Ministry of Education and Other Stuff could not provide an audit trail for where Dutch funds specifically earmarked for education had gone?
Is there any doubt about why I, even as an outsider, am so frustrated?
Feel free to make up your own mind about education–and specifically special education–in Sint Maarten. As for me, last night I decided that I will very shortly becvome a thorn in the side of this educational system. Time to brush off the old college political activist loafers. For better or worse, Everyone who has anything to do with schools on this island will know my name before I’m either kicked off the island or leave on my own. I am all about education. More, I am all about the education of children, especially those who have special needs–even if the need is merely for a little boost of self confidence.
Sint Maarten Ministry of Education (and other things), you stand warned.

What Kids Are Reading – 2013

Reading opens a world of ideas and insights to kids–and adults as well. Often, when a child is asked to select a book to read–and possibly write a report about–he or she has no idea where to begin to find a good book.

This is a great link if you want to know the reasons kids give for choosing reading materials “on their own.” They read not only suggestions made by friends, but also those made by librarians, parents and grandparents, and anyone else who has a positive influence on their lives.

Need some help in guiding them to materials? The Renaissance Learning link below contains some great information–especially on how students choose independent reading materials.

What Kids Are Reading – 2013

Encourage kids to read, and be prepared to guide their choice of reading material!