Much work remains to be done on a new government program to mainstream mentally disabled children, but for one student the results are already striking.by Grigore Brinza 2 January 2012
CHISINAU | When Ion Onica was 4, he was enrolled in Moldova’s only boarding school for boys with severe mental disabilities. Ion had been diagnosed with Down syndrome. His mother, with two other children and no other source of income, was forced to go to Russia to work.
Three years later, Ion’s mother brought him home to their village of Dolna, about 30 miles northwest of Chisinau. Though Ion was one of the most active boys at the school, Viorica Onica says it did not provide any education program, and she concluded he would not make any progress there.
“I haven’t even tried to teach him to write or read because the specialists told me he would only succeed in physical activities and not develop intellectually,” she says.
Ion is 13 now, and until last year no one challenged what the specialists told his mother. He was considered incapable of learning.
“He couldn’t speak or greet people on the street, and he was subjected to all kinds of humiliation by the other children in the village,” says Ana Mutu, who teaches children with disabilities at the village school in Dolna.
Last year Ion was admitted to the Dolna school as part of a growing effort in Moldova to find a middle ground for mentally disabled children between special education and no education – which, under the old system, often amounted to the same thing.
At the boarding school Ion formerly attended, children “were deprived of opportunity,” says Ludmila Malcoci of Keystone Human Services International, a charity that works to integrate Moldovans with disabilities. Ion was enrolled at his village school under a Keystone initiative, Community for All-Moldova, that has shepherded a handful of children from the boarding school into mainstream institutions. This academic year, the government launched a broader program to bring children with various physical and mental disabilities into more than 100 schools.
Nationwide some 10,000 disabled children have been integrated into the general school system, according to the Moldovan Education Ministry – most of them mildly impaired but some, like Ion, severely so. About 4,000 more children with disabilities who are now in residential schools are to be moved to general schools, and more are visited by teachers at home.
With the new programs, many like Ion who were considered ineducable can return to their families and acquire basic reading, writing, and math skills with the help of support teachers brought in to work with them. It’s a novel approach for Moldova, and one sometimes met with resistance from teachers and administrators.
Constantin Nicula, the Dolna school’s principal, acknowledges he initially opposed admitting Ion, the school’s first disabled student. He says mainstreaming disabled pupils raises a number of as-yet-unresolved questions, such as the provision of appropriate training for teachers and the pupils’ capacity to pass graduation exams.
In Dolna, Nicula says, teachers who earn only $190 to $270 a month were discouraged to have to learn new skills and spend additional time with a disabled student. In addition, the school will need to hire a psychologist and possibly other specialists as well.
PUTTING CHILDREN FIRST
Helping integrate children with a variety of physical and mental handicaps is only part of a process of changing the way children are educated in Moldova. “Child-centered education” and “competency-based curriculum” are the buzzwords for the new course the Education Ministry is mapping.
In practical terms, that means changing an environment in which teachers would often show impatience with slow learners, who might then fall further behind, be categorized as having special needs, and get sent to auxiliary schools. The new focus is on showing pupils more individual attention and teaching each according to his or her needs within the general classroom setting.
“We now have pupils with various disabilities in general schools, but they are treated the same as the healthy ones, although they have special education requirements,” says Valentin Crudu, head of the department of preschool, primary, and secondary education at the Ministry of Education.
The pilot project begun this autumn marked the beginning of a 10-year strategy approved by the government in July to make Moldovan education more inclusive. Funded by international organizations and nonprofits, the pilot will run for four years in more than 100 of the country’s 1,500 general schools.
Opening the schools to previously excluded children will require an array of financial, legal, physical, and instructional changes.
One innovation will be a service involving psychologists, speech therapists, and other specialists who will make site visits to assess the needs of children and their families, Crudu says.
A new legal framework will be needed to clarify, among other issues, the number of disabled children allowed in mainstream classrooms. Teachers must be trained to adapt curricula to the needs of pupils with special requirements.
Another objective is to make schools more accessible by installing ramps, therapy rooms, and handicapped bathrooms. This will create additional maintenance costs Crudu says will be covered by a new financing system in which schools are funded on a per-pupil basis.
Such large-scale reforms are still works in progress, but integration has already had a deep impact on Ion Onica. He is one of nine students in the Dolna school’s fourth-grade class; his peers are three years younger than he.
Ion joined the class on a probationary basis; the fourth-grade teacher, Iulia Dercaci was initially concerned he would be a distraction and prevent her from working efficiently with the other pupils. But she says Ion has turned out to be an obedient, manageable student. He knows the school’s rules of conduct and already has permission to do some activities independently.
Dercaci received no specialized training on working with disabled pupils and relies on her own knowledge and experience. She says she uses the same teaching methods with Ion as with his classmates, but he requires significant additional work with Ana Mutu, the support teacher.
For Mutu, the biggest challenge in working with Ion is the need to go over material many times to compensate for his difficulty in retaining what he learns. But after nearly a year and a half in the general school, he has made major strides. Mutu says he can now read and write and is working on his music and drawing skills.
Perhaps the most successful aspect of his schooling is that the once-bullied boy is now accepted, helped, and protected by other children in Dolna. “He would be a marginalized child now if he hadn’t been in school,” Dercaci says.
Ion appears happy with the changes in his life. “I like it both at school and at home,” he says. “At school I learn, I play, I have many friends, and at home I help my mother with housework and cooking.”
The results are far beyond what Viorica Onica expected for Ion only a few years ago.
“I never would have thought it possible,” she says. “He has begun reading, recognizes the letters, distinguishes colors, pronounces and speaks better, greets the villagers. He can go alone to the store and already can manage a number of things alone.”
And now she can harbor more ambitious hopes for her son. “A lot of work has been done with Ion and I hope to get him interested in becoming a professional cook.”