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Hope in sight: 'A school strives to achieve'.

By Alina Kalaji Special to The Star The Arab Episcopal School, situated in al-Barha Street, Irbid, appears like any other school to a visitor. Children in colorful uniforms from age three to 10, bustle happily in the playground under teachers' supervision. The bell rings and neat little lines are formed to be ushered into classrooms--the most "senior" of which is third grade. This school, however, is unique in the whole of Jordan and the Middle East, for it integrates blind and low vision students with sighted students. At present the school accommodates 85 students, 23 of whom are blind or partially sighted. Starting from KG1 (with pupils as young as 3 years and 4 months,) to 3rd elementary (10 years), the school offers a curriculum of Arabic, Math, Science, Islamic/Christian Religion, English, History, Art, Sport, Music and Computer Studies. It also offers some French tuition.Standard instruction is given using books, visual aids, and copybooks for sighted students, but all is duplicated--using Braille , tactile and sound aids--in both languages English and Arabic! However, the greatest resource is the teaching staff. There are seventeen teachers--each class or group benefits from a sighted teacher and an assistant teacher, who is blind. The ratio for integration is five students to two teachers. There is a lively and industrious atmosphere in the classrooms on entry. Brightly colored works adorn the walls and bulletin boards, and all signs on cupboards, drawers, doors and walls are duplicated with Braille and tactile aids for the blind. Pupils are listening to a teacher while a blind assistant-teacher is guiding a little hand across a Braille book and repeating instructions.Rev. Samir Esaid, together with his wife Ms Sabah Zureiqat, the director, co-founded the school in 2003. They realized that Irbid, the second largest city in Jordan with a population of over a million (and 735 villages in the surrounding areas) had no Kindergarten facilities for blind or low vision children. Esaid explained, "Blind children would be schooled at the age of six in al-Nour School for the Blind in Marqa, Amman. Because they are too young to travel daily, blind six-year-olds would have to be separated from their families for weeks at a time, causing distress and anxiety to children and parents." Esaid and his wife were further inspired by the educational system for the blind in the USA and Canada, which had started to integrate blind and low vision students with sighted students in regular schools. They noted that blind young children in Jordan were often isolated from the community, and spent their time just sitting at home with minimal social contact or opportunity to play or learn. They also realized, however, that this project would be a tremendous challenge to them both in terms of economics, school location and skills required to support blind students.The Church donated to them an old building and funded its renovation, which enabled the opening of KG1 and KG2 in 2003. There was also further assistance from al-Dhiyaa' Association, which runs the only kindergarten for the blind in Amman, under the patronage of HRH Prince Ra'ad. This association agreed to pay the fees for the blind students in the Irbid school in the KG section and support two salaries for blind assistant teachers. (They have subsequently continued to fund blind students and teachers up to the present third grade). Despite this assistance it was clear that further financial backing was urgently needed to equip the school with vital equipment. "I contacted and gave lectures to philanthropic and church groups in Germany for further support. We received in September 2006 three Nadeq speaking-computers for the blind and 2 standard computers from the German embassy in Amman. We also received three Perkins Braille typing machines from Germany; but next year the school will need more than 10. Integration requires more resources, both in teaching staff and equipment. At present, funds from Germany, Christoffel Blinden Mission private/charitable donations, and fees cover 60 percent of the cost. Our hope is to be able to open the school till 6th grade, enabling young students, both blind and sighted, to gain the independence and confidence necessary to go on to higher learning," Rev . Esaid stated, adding, "Blind children have excellent intelligent minds, and they need to have their potential realized and be active participants in society."Zureiqat, the director, gave further details of the special activities required to teach blind students. She herself had taken training in Braille and was able to train other teachers. "Our school functions through a great deal of hard work, co-operation and continued staff support. Physiotherapy is an important initial step for blind student. It helps to make fingers agile, as these children have usually been inactive. Blind children learn through feeling objects and sound association, eventually progressing to reading Braille. Special education teachers, trained by us, give one to one support during classes given by regular teachers. Also teachers have co-jointly created many teaching aids and resources and adapted them to the needs of all students. Sighted students enjoy the tactile/sound aids and teaching games used for blind students as much as their own. The class will usually be divided into groups, so sighted pupils can progress at their pace in writing and further practice, and blind students will have their support for practice of Braille and other activities with the blind assistant teacher. Children are also taught vital personal and social skills: Fill a cup with water, eat a sandwich, put on a coat, tie shoelacesC*etc. Blind teachers understand the needs of blind children and so are invaluable. However, a vital factor remains that sighted children and blind children learn together. Sighted children love to help their blind friends, giving them a spirit of compassion for, and understanding of, disabled and handicapped people," Zureiqat explained.Many of the blind pupils come from villages and a refugee camp outside Irbid. Zureiqat gave examples of some of the blind students served by the school. "Muhammad, a blind student aged 10 from Irbid, was the reason we opened 3rd grade in September 2006. He had never attended school in his life as his parents did not want him to be away from them in Amman. When his father brought him, we decided to open 3rd grade; we now have 5 students--Muhammad, another low vision child, and three sighted children with two teachers. Because Muhammad had taken special courses at home in Arabic in Braille, he was good in Arabic. However, he had no English, French or math. Hence he was given extra tuition in these subjects at the expense of art, music, and sport lessons. In the space of seven months he has become excellent in these three subjects and is able to enjoy the other three activities now. Batoul aged 10 is partially sighted. She had attended regular school from a young age, but had only learned through listening and never participated in reading or writing. When she first arrived she didn't want to talk or participate; now she doesn't want to leave the school. She was also given extra Arabic, English and math lessons with the help of a magnifier. She can now read with confidence, and is able to stand up and balance herself confidently. Sarah, a blind student in 2nd grade, came to us from the Hussn refugee camp. Her mother is a single parent and a cancer sufferer. The school covers her fees, transport and books. Sarah unfortunately is a slow learner and lessons have to be repeated to her daily."When asked about her dream and hope for the school, Zureiqat stated, "I want to be the children's eyes, so that they can learn, play, socialize and integrate. I want to translate learning so that they can feel it and live a normal child's life".Ms Muntaha Mqattash (English teacher, sighted), stated, "I started teaching in this school in 2006. Of course, the task is not easy, but I still love it. I love my work because I'm dealing with students who need me and need special learning. Blind and sighted students are happy to learn the same lessons in the same classroom. From my experience, I found that blind students are very happy in this school. They feel confident and behave as naturally as sighted students. They do face some difficulties like slowness in reading and writing because they have to touch the letters one by one, but they are keen to learn."Final comments from two blind students confirm that despite the challenges the school has had to face, the founders' dream of including blind students into a regular school setting has been realized. Muhammad, aged 10, stated, "I like school very much, and I want to stay here. I like the school because I love studying and love to meet other children and play with my friends." Taqwa, 2nd grade blind student states, "I love my school because I can study here and play with my friends. I am happy at school and I can play with sighted and blind children together.""Together" is the goal, at least, that has been achieved.nHope in sight: 'A school strives to achieve'

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Publication:The Star (Amman, Jordan)
Date:Mar 19, 2007
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