PHILIPSBURG–A special needs education policy is currently in an advanced stage of development and should be finalised this year.
Minister of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport (ECYS) Rodolphe Samuel told Members of Parliament (MPs) on Friday last that the first working draft of the policy has been presented to key stakeholders both internally and externally for their feedback and input.
These include the Cabinet of the ECYS Minister, the ECYS Ministry’s management team, school boards, Windward Islands Teachers Union (WITU), and organisations in the field of special education, such as Enable NV and Excellence Learning Academy. Currently, the draft policy is being updated based on the feedback that has been received, Samuel said.
Meanwhile, the Inclusive Education Project is progressing well. The design criteria for Special Needs and Inclusive Schools are the first of several products to be developed in support of the Special Needs Education Policy. According to Samuel, this includes international school design principles that should be used to upgrade and reconstruct local educational facilities that provide special needs and inclusive education, such as Charles Leopold Bell School.
The design criteria have been vetted by a Special Needs/Inclusive Education Project Team; the ECYS Ministry Resilient Team; the Ministry of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure VROMI; school boards; and beneficiaries of the related World Bank projects.
“Within the last two weeks, it was presented to the ECYS Minister for decision-making. Next, the consultant is expected to present the results of a survey to assess the provision of special needs education and inclusive education in public, government-funded, and private schools on the island. These results will help to inform the finalisation of the draft Special Needs Education Policy so that it may be presented to the ECYS Minister for decision-making,” Samuel said.
In response to a question from an MP on what the policy will cover, Samuel said it will cover physical, emotional, and behavioural learning disabilities and impairments. Areas covered under the policy include autism, hearing impairment, visual impairment, speech impairment, emotionally disturbed, specific learning disabled, intellectually disabled, orthopedically impaired, multiple disabled and gifted students.
Samuel said the implementation of the Special Needs Education Policy means that all aspects of the provision of special needs education in St Maarten will be regulated. This, he added, includes the fundamental principles and beliefs that should be used to guide the provision of special needs education in the country. Additionally, special needs education will be defined in the policy, including the categories of special needs that the policy regulates.
The Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) has been introduced in the draft policy as a tool to assist in the goal of meeting each student's unique needs while providing access to the general education curriculum. Options are being explored to better meet the needs of secondary students with special needs who do not meet the requirements for “Arbeidsgericht Onderwijs” (AGO).
He said the policy will also seek to reduce any barriers that students with special needs face through the full implementation of Inclusive Education and the provision of education in the least restrictive environment.
“The structure of special needs education will be addressed. Pull-out resource rooms, inclusive classrooms, and special education schools and classrooms will be properly described in the policy, including the student-to-teacher ratios found in each type of classroom. The procedures for identification and placement of special needs students into inclusive educational settings or a school for special education will be addressed and the admittance process will be regulated,” he said.
“The roles and responsibilities of all key actors will be expounded in the policy to provide clarity and transparency regarding the expectations of all actors in providing adequate care for the special needs student.”
In accordance with existing legislation, the necessary qualifications of teaching and support staff in special education will be regulated in the policy. The policy will also establish procedures for record-keeping, access to records, and the reporting of student and staff records.
The policy will also outline the type of disciplinary measures allowed to be taken against students with special needs and any special considerations necessary for the provision of special needs education, such as the infrastructure, spatial environment, and physical plan of schools.
Samuel said that currently, teachers are the ones who generally signal to a school’s care team whether there are gifted students, based on classroom observations and assessment results of students. The care team gathers additional information (including parent consultation) and if there are indeed indications of giftedness, a referral is made to St. Maarten Student Support Services (SSSD).
SSSD will conduct a thorough clinical assessment that also includes social-emotional functioning. This also includes data from the tracking of the student, review of student portfolio, classroom observation, etc. “If a child is identified as gifted, then a plan of approach is put in place for that child with the help of all stakeholders involved with the child.”
In terms of how the policy will address students’ physical disabilities, Samuel said the operational standards for special education speak to the design of schools – infrastructure, spatial environment and physical plan. The policy will incorporate such information to address the physical disabilities of students in several ways, he said.
“Some of these considerations include the reduction of barriers to education by ensuring that there is enough physical space for movement; that there are limited distractions, paying particular attention to sounds, lighting, and flooring; and that activities should be designed taking into consideration those with physical challenges.
“The policy reiterates that schools that serve students with special needs should be designed and built in such a way that these needs are taken into consideration.
“Additionally, the recent collaboration with the National Recovery Program Bureau has produced the Design Criteria for Special Needs and Inclusive Schools, which include international school design principles that should be used to upgrade and reconstruct local educational facilities that provide Special Needs and Inclusive Education.”
He said the policy addresses secondary education for students with special needs by introducing the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) as a tool to assist in the goal of meeting each student's unique needs while providing access to the general education curriculum.
“The policy also seeks to regulate the enrolment process of students with special needs into secondary education and regulates the qualifications for teachers of special education on the secondary level.
“There are currently some ideas on the table as it pertains to secondary special education. An assessment of current needs related to Special Needs Education is expected to be started within short to further determine existing needs for Special Needs Education and is expected to further inform the draft policy prior to its formalisation,” he said.