Integrated education in Ukraine

Kyiv has an ambitious plan to integrate disabled children into mainstream classrooms, but many fear the potential for bullying, de facto segregation, and other pitfalls by Ksenia Korzun 15 June 2012

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?”

 

Ukrainian schoolchildren at a toy-painting workshop. Photo by Kharakhu/Wikimedia Commons.

 

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.

 

EDUCATION OVERHAUL

 

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.”

Ksenia Korzun is an editor at Excise magazine in Kyiv.

Reprinted by kind permission of Transitions Online

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