A special-ed trainer at BOCES recently shared her impressions of classrooms in other parts of the world….
When she gave a workshop to parents of children with special needs 12 years ago, Laurie Levine had no idea it would lead to what she now calls “the most incredible journey” of her life.
A regional special education trainer for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES, Levine was contacted six years after the workshop by a participant, Alix Laager. Laager wanted to know if Levine would be interested in serving as a consultant to the government of Bhutan. The task was building a special education system for an entire nation from the ground up.
“At the time, the only special education services available in Bhutan were two schools: one for the blind and one for the deaf,” said Levine. “There were no services for children with other learning disabilities like attention deficit disorder, emotional disorders and more severe and complex disabilities.”
Children with issues like ADD were simply left to muddle through on their own in classes with 40 to 50 students, while students with severe disabilities were kept at home by their parents.
Tucked away in the Himalayan Mountains of Southeast Asia, Bhutan is a small country that elected its first Parliament in 2008. Laager and her husband, Ruedi, wanted to create a foundation to help the young nation develop special education services for its children.
With funding from the Laagers and working in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, the Bhutan Foundation and the Youth Development Fund, Levine has travelled to Bhutan each summer for the past four years as a volunteer to train teachers, create special education resource centers and set up pilot schools.
“It has been the most fascinating thing I’ve done in 30 years in special education,” said Levine. “To start from scratch, to work in a country in a different culture, it has changed my life and I think it has made me better at what I do here. I’m a better listener. I’m more aware of people’s needs and I value collaboration more than ever before.”
One of the challenges the Bhutan Special Education Project has faced, Levine said, is that there are no colleges that teach special education in Bhutan and there are no speech, physical or occupational therapists in the country. In the whole country of about 700,000 people, Levine said there are about three or four people with special education degrees that they earned in Australia or India.