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Experiment in Diversity

Georgian educators are keen to move forward with inclusive education, but questions remain about funding.
русская версия
by Tamar Kikacheishvili 12 May 2009 TBILISI | Each school day Ina Mangoshvili and her daughter Mari climb narrow Petriashvili Street to Public School No. 21.

“I like coming here. But sometimes I have lots of homework. My favorite subject is Georgian literature, but math is really hard, and the teacher gives me a lot of assignments for the next day,” says Mari, 11.

“I have good friends in class but I don’t like the boys there. Often they call me ‘Mariii’ and ask for my mobile phone,” she says.

Mari shares a bench with her best friend at school, Khatia Danelia, who helps her with math and in getting around. Mari has cerebral palsy. During a break between classes the third-floor hall fills with children. Khatia helps Mari walk through the crush.

“Mari is very funny … and loves sports. This year she wanted to go skiing with me but Mrs. Ina [Mari’s mother] didn’t let her,” Khatia says.


Mari Mangoshvili (left) and her friend Khatia Danelia in class at School No. 21, one of 10 schools in Tbilisi selected for a pilot project on inclusive education. Photo by Tamar Kikacheishvili.

INCLUSIVE EDUCATION

School No. 21 and nine others in Tbilisi recently completed a two-year pilot project on inclusive education of children with special needs in regular public-school classrooms. Almost a third of the project’s more than $90,000 cost was covered by a grant from the Norwegian government.

In March, the Norwegian ambassador, John Ramberg, signed an agreement to help implement a new inclusive education program in 10 more schools across Georgia, targeted at a whole range of “minorities,” including children with limited mobility or slow development, those from non-Georgian ethnic groups, and homeless children.

The success of the pilot project helped boost support for a three-year government strategy and action plan for inclusive education, said Eka Dgebuadze, a senior specialist at the Ministry of Education and Science. The plan, approved in October, does not allocate monies from the ministry budget for inclusive education.

Inclusive education is a new idea in the Caucasus. Armenia began an inclusive education program in 2005, according to the Armenian Ministry of Education. In Georgia, education specialists are committed to delivering a better education to disabled children and others with special needs, but the means of financing the additional costs remains unresolved. The Georgian Education Ministry has been opposed to additional funding for schools that implement inclusive education projects, arguing that this would single out a certain category of student, in effect discriminating against them.

The 10 schools selected for the pilot project were outfitted with resource rooms where pupils can relax, study, watch TV, or just play with toys. To improve accessibility, outdoor and indoor ramps were built and new toilets and classroom doors installed.

The project also funded a teacher aide and a psychologist for each school.

In all, 111 students with different levels of disability took part in the pilot program. About 200 disabled children are enrolled in public schools in the Georgian capital. Nationwide, the Education Ministry says, about 1,000 disabled students study at 13 special schools.

The Education Ministry will continue funding the salaries of teacher aides and psychologists in the 10 schools. As for other schools, the ministry argues that many have sufficient resources to fund these positions. The aides and psychologists are paid the same as other school teachers, 300 lari, or about $180, a month.

According to Tatia Pachkoria, inclusive education coordinator with the ministry’s National Curriculum and Assessment Center, informing the public about special needs education and development of a national policy were key components of the project. As Georgia gets ready to adopt the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Education Ministry is drafting new legislation to strengthen the rights of disabled people in schools and universities, Dgebuadze said.

The new legislation in accordance with the convention should be adopted by this autumn and will mark another step toward more inclusive education, along with the strategy and action plan approved last year, Dgebuadze said.

FUNDING NOT ASSURED

Irina Lomidze is the inclusive education coordinator at Mari Mangoshvili’s school in Tbilisi. She says 14 pupils affected by cerebral palsy and autism are enrolled there and receive individual care. Like other Georgian public schools, No. 21 is a combined primary and secondary school.

“The teacher aide spends the most time with them, helping with whatever they need. Most of these children spend their time in the resource room, where they play with the toys or paint. Some of them just relax,” Lomidze says.

Some pupils spend most of their school day in the resource room, where there is always a staff member on duty. Thirty of the school’s 105-member teaching staff were given special training by Norwegian experts to better equip them to teach classes containing children with differing levels of physical and mental ability.

Georgian educators are discussing the means of financing inclusive education. Education Ministry expert Dgebuadze says ministry officials would like to expand the current financing system for the benefit of children with disabilities. Under the existing system, public schools with fewer than 400 students receive a voucher worth 325 laris per student per year to cover teacher salaries and some other expenses. Larger schools and schools in mountainous regions receive vouchers worth more money, but there are no additional funds for students with special needs.

“These children need teacher aides and a psychologist as well. They also need special equipment. Currently, only the 10 pilot schools have all the equipment needed for the education of disabled children,” Dgebuadze says.

But School No. 21’s principal, Mikhail Lomidze (no relation to Irina Lomidze), believes that extra financing for disabled children would be discriminatory.

“I think that the issues related to children must be dealt with on the same level. That’s why schools get the same amount for each child, no matter whether disabled or healthy,” Mikhail Lomidze says. He adds that it would be best if teacher aides were available to work with every disabled child.

Irina Lomidze, the school’s inclusive education coordinator, favors additional spending for children with special needs, however. She says the school needs at least three teacher aides and two psychologists. The school has almost 1,400 students but only one psychologist and one teacher aide.

GRADUAL ACCEPTANCE

The pilot project also uncovered negative reactions among many parents and even teachers toward children who look or behave differently, yet it also brought hope to proponents of inclusive education.

When the project began, Irina Lomidze says, “Parents of healthy children complained about the disabled students being in their children’s classes, even though there were almost no problems from the children themselves, and the children accepted each other better than the parents did.”

Some parents said that such mixed classes lowered the overall level of ability because their children became bored when the teacher repeated material for pupils with learning disabilities.

“Our society still needs preparation for accepting these children as members of society. This was really a problem, especially when we were beginning the program,” Dgebuadze says.

Attitudes toward children with special needs seem to improve with experience, according to research carried out by the nonprofit International Institute for Education Policy, Planning, and Management with the National Curriculum and Assessment Center. Opinions on inclusive classes in Georgian schools are very different in the schools that took part in the pilot project compared to those without inclusive methods, the research found.

The survey was conducted in the autumn of 2006, when the pilot project began, and a report was published in 2007.

Surveying schools where students have no experience of inclusive education, the researchers found that many students believed the presence of a disabled person in class could lead to conflicts between students with differing attitudes toward disability.

A very different picture emerged in the schools that took part in the pilot project. Here, the report says, “students did not perceive any influence on the class from the presence of a disabled child. This does not mean that nothing changed in those classes. But the main influence on these students was positive personality changes. They felt that through contact with disabled classmates they were growing more tolerant,” the researchers concluded.
Tamar Kikacheishvili is a staff writer with Georgia Today.
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