ODESSA, Ukraine | An avid painter, 9-year-old Darina Matsenko is looking forward to September, when she'll transition from home schooling into third grade at a local primary school where she can showcase her portraits and still lifes. But she's also concerned, and not just about first-day jitters.
"I’m a little worried about how physical education classes will be held," says Darina, who has dark hair and big brown eyes. "I can't walk. Will I skip these classes, or have to sit on the sidelines and watch the other kids?"
Darina has cerebral palsy, a brain disorder that can affect movement, hearing, and other functions. For two years, she's studied at home with tutors rather than in one of Ukraine's roughly 50 special needs schools, where, according to her father, Nicholas, Darina says she would feel "ugly."
But Svitlana Matsenko is interviewing teachers to choose between two schools for her daughter to attend this fall. The schools are part of an ambitious reform initiative launched this year by Ukraine's Ministry of Education, Science, Youth, and Sports to integrate children with mental and physical disabilities into mainstream education.
Following a decade-long pilot program, the ministry has ordered schools to upgrade infrastructure, train teachers, and hire new staff so Ukraine's roughly 120,000 special needs children may study alongside their peers in primary and secondary schools. It approved the initiative last year, partly to address the country's weak special education system.Education Minister Dmitry Tabachnik also says disabled children should attend mainstream schools to be full members of society with equal opportunities, not outcasts.
"We have to socialize these children, to let them study in normal classrooms," Tabachnik said when announcing the reform in April.
But despite broad public support and models of "inclusive education" in nearby countries, some parents, rights groups, and even students worry about implementation, from the obstacles to teaching disabled children in integrated classrooms to the potential for bullying.
Envisioning the challenges ahead, Darina cuts to the essence of these concerns. "Will I be a black sheep?" she asks.
Today, many Ukrainian classrooms are already inclusive. The 2001 to 2012 pilot program of 22 schools helped to inspire local reform among Ukraine's 25 regions, especially in the Crimea. But, often, classrooms are integrated in only one or two grades.
The new reform will not make all Ukrainian schools fully inclusive in the near term, but the ministry wants every special needs child in the country to be able to attend mainstream schools by around 2020 and for inclusion to be the norm for future generations.
This represents an overhaul of Ukraine's education system, according to the Union of Disability Organizations. While all new schools will be built with ramps, special toilets, and other necessary infrastructure, many existing facilities must be retrofit. Teachers will receive supplementary training designed by the ministry on working with special needs children. A new position, the teacher's assistant, has been created to help disabled students navigate the classroom and generally facilitate the learning process. Schools are also introducing psychological counseling.
Kyiv is offering the regions extra money for the new infrastructure and staff. There is no set budget because local officials will apply for funding on an ad hoc basis. Regions with fewer special needs students, such as Lugansk, will need less money or rely on local coffers. Odessa, on the other hand, requires more federal assistance.
Both during and after the transition, which is already underway, special needs schools will stay open so parents can choose where to send their children. But the ministry emphasizes that mainstream education will be transformed. Even Braille textbooks, sorely lacking today in general, will be readily available.
BROAD SUPPORT, BIG CONCERNS
Some 70 percent of Ukrainians support inclusive education, according to a survey conducted from June 2011 through January 2012 by the European Research Area, an arm of the European Commission, and several partners from the private and public sectors. Nearly a quarter of respondents called the reform an opportunity to educate their children on physical and mental disabilities.
Other Eastern European countries have had success with inclusive schools. Yevgeny Stepko, a top education official in Cherkassy, central Ukraine, said he and his colleagues were inspired by a 2009 visit to Georgia, which reformed its education system in 2006. Though many Georgian schools are still being retrofit, special needs children study in mainstream classrooms, and Tbilisi is reportedly pleased with the transition so far.
Ukraine itself demonstrates the potential of inclusion. Eight-year- old Maxim Kurylenko, who, like Darina, has cerebral palsy, has attended a mainstream secondary school in Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine, for two years. He is one of three disabled students at the school, which built ramps, adapted toilets, and bought a special bus with a wheelchair lift.
"I feel normal attending classes," Maxim says. "I have a few classmates I hang out with after school."
But, as Darina fears, Maxim is sometimes excluded. "When [the other students] attend physical education classes or go to school parties with a disco," he says, "I usually stay home."
When it comes to integrating mentally disabled students into classrooms, some parents are skeptical if not opposed. Anna Kopylova, the mother of a ninth-grader in Kyiv, says children with Down Syndrome, for instance, belong in special schools.
"Why should my daughter sit next to a mentally challenged child?" she asks. "I have nothing against these kids, but it will hinder my daughter's learning process, as the teacher will be less demanding because of the disabled children."
Parents on the opposite end of the reform also have doubts. Tatyana Nazarenko's daughter Catherine, 10, is one of the roughly 4,000 Ukrainian children with Down Syndrome.
"These children are usually bullied," she says. "I do not want to send my child to an ordinary school. She is now studying in a special school, where everybody has Down's. Healthy kids can make fun of a child."
Moreover, Nazarenko says, the curriculum won't be tailored to her daughter's needs. She might fall behind.
A DIFFICULT DECISION
Even disability advocacy groups recognize the challenges ahead, while standing behind the reform.
"Disabled persons must be full members of society," says Marina Chukova, deputy director of Happy Childhood for All, which works with a variety of children in need. "But we cannot allow disabled students to be made fun of. This will take the efforts of all school personnel, from directors to teacher's assistants and psychologists."
Teacher's assistants, in particular, will be key to helping special needs students adapt to their new environment and, at times, to keep up with the curriculum, according to Antonina Kalinina of the Kyiv-based Darnysta orphanage for disabled children. The specially trained assistants will do everything from managing bathroom and other breaks to keeping an eye on when a child might need a supplementary lesson or two.
Ultimately, some educators say, children with potentially severe disabilities like Down Syndrome may be best served by special needs schools. This is even despite glaring shortages of staff and supplies like Braille textbooks and no serious reform agenda on the horizon.
"If the disabilities are prominent, the child will feel like he's lagging behind, which will only exacerbate the sense of alienation,” says Igor Mamatkazin, director of a Kyiv school with inclusive classrooms. Parents, he says, must weigh their options carefully.
For her part, 9-year-old Darina is eager to make friends this fall after two years of home schooling. She wants to share her artwork and paint a portrait of her class.
But mostly, Darina says, she wants to be treated like any other third-grader – no one should feel sorry for her.
"If I deserve it, I want to receive bad marks," she says. "But I am sure the teacher won't expect much from me and will try to help, which only makes me feel less self-confident.”