Education for All

March 30, 2015

Five years ago, I made my first trip to Nicaragua to work with schools that were seeking to better support their students with special needs. That was also the year that David started attending school at the Nejapa campus of Nicaragua Christian Academy (NCA-N). At that point in time, David was in the 3rd grade. I remember meeting him and seeing his contagious smile, the pride with which he wore his school uniform, and the effort he put into his schoolwork. I have returned to Nicaragua at least once every year since then and when I am on the NCA-N campus, I always look for David. Each time he sees me, he greets me with a big smile.

David is now in 8th grade at NCA-N. He still has a beautiful smile, still is clearly delighted to attend this school, and still works very hard at his academics. David has also made many friends over his past five years at this school. I see them talking together as they share a snack at recess, laughing together during free time, and working together on a group project during class. This semester, I get to the NCA-N campus at least once week and I still always look for David. These days, David greets me with a handshake, as well as that beautiful smile, each time I see him.

This month, the students in the 8th grade welding class at NCA-N made a gift for David. He has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around the school. Recently, though, he had an operation that would allow him to use a walker and he has been working hard in physical therapy at Tesoros de Dios to learn to walk. His classmates made a walker for him from tube steel and painted it blue, David’s favorite color. The students were just as excited to give him this gift as he was to get it.

David was the first student from Tesoros de Dios to be included in the general education program at NCA-N. Since that time, the partnership between Tesoros de Dios, a school for children with special needs, and NCA-N has grown. In the years since that beginning, NCA-N has reached out to include additional children who are part of the program at Tesoros de Dios and children with significant special needs are now included throughout all the grades at this school.

I recently met with NCA-N teachers on a Friday afternoon, after classes were finished for the day, to help with planning for the modifications they would need to make in their classes the following week to meet the special learning needs of their students. At the end of a long workweek, instead of heading home to start their weekend, these teachers were willing to meet together to see how they could improve the ways they are teaching these students. Their commitment to continuing to be an inclusive school community is inspiring.

There are so many resources that are available to teachers in North America that are not available to these teachers. For example, most schools in the United States employ educational assistants to help teachers meet the needs of students with significant disabilities. For almost every one of the students from Tesoros de Dios that is included at NCA-N, if that same student were included in a school in the United States, the student would be provided with an educational aide. However, this is not a commonly available resource here. For some of the Tesoros children who are included at NCA-N, a parent is able to stay at school with them all day to assist. For others, however, even this is not a possibility as that parent needs to work while their child is in school. This is particularly the case for those who are single parents.

Teachers also do not have the option of sending the child to the special education classroom to work on a particular skill or activity. Just as there are no educational assistants, there are no special education classrooms and no special education teachers. The general education teacher needs to make all the adaptations to the curriculum and provide all the extra teaching and reinforcement that the child needs. A child might be in the fifth grade, but only functioning academically at the first grade level in reading and math. Thus, that fifth grade teacher would need to provide that student with modified materials and expectations for many of the academic tasks throughout the school day while still meeting the needs of all the other students in the class. While teachers in private schools may have classes of only 30 students, teachers in public schools frequently have class sizes in excess of 50 students, which makes this task even more challenging.

In addition, some of the items we would consider essential are difficult to obtain here. Many of the children at Tesoros de Dios are not able to walk, but very few of them have their own wheelchair. Tesoros de Dios has a collection of wheelchairs which the children can use when they are at school, but the wheelchairs have to stay at school as they are shared by multiple children. David uses a Tesoros wheelchair at school. His physical education teacher has asked me to get him a better wheelchair to use during physical education class, but a better one just isn’t available. The physical education teacher plans ways for David to participate in the activities of physical education class alongside his classmates, but unfortunately, his wheelchair is too unstable for him to be able to actually do many of those things.

I am working with teachers, schools, and the Ministry of Education here in Nicaragua this semester to help bring inclusive education to more schools. NCA-N serves as a model school for what can be accomplished through a lot of hard work and persistence on the part of parents, teachers, administrators and students. It has been a privilege to be a part of this work and I am excited to have been given this opportunity.

About the Author
  • Kathleen Davis Van Tol serves as a Professor of Education at Dordt University. In addition to her teaching of undergraduate and graduate students, she also works with The Thrive Center for ABA, providing behavior therapy for children in northwest Iowa, and Tesoros De Dios, a school for children with special needs located in Nicaragua. 

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  1. As I mentioned in the article, the physical education teacher at NCA – Nejapa wanted me to get a better wheelchair for David so he could participate in PE class. I brought him the only other chair we had at Tesoros that would fit David. It wasn’t great, but it was better. Unfortunately, it really wasn’t in good enough shape to do what the teacher was hoping for. So, this week, when I was at NCA-N, I saw the PE teacher coming to talk to me and I was thinking, “I really don’t have any more options.” However, he wasn’t coming to ask me to get David a better wheelchair. He was coming to tell me that the family of another student had donated a wheelchair for David. It isn’t new, but it is in really good shape and will allow David to actively participate in the PE Class. Praise God!

      1. I received an email from Hope Haven today asking about our need for wheelchairs. God’s community of believers is wonderful!

  2. Kathleen, I am so pleased that you received an email from Hope Haven! This is wonderful news for the children of Nicaragua. Great work, Hope Haven! Thank you for all you are doing for the children and teachers of Nicaragua.

  3. Kathleen, I am extremely interested in speaking with you about the work you are currently doing in Nicaragua. I just visited Tesoros de Dios in March with Jim Wilson, the founder of Bradley’s House of Hope (which is now Tesoros). I am so amazed that I happened upon your blog this evening, as I had just spoken to Jim earlier this afternoon about my intent to return to Nicaragua at the end of this summer.

    I am an undergraduate student at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. I am also the father of a blended family of 8 kids, ( I had 4, she had 3, we have one together), two of whom have autism. I have also traveled to Guatemala in the past, and I have a sincere interest, and intent, to create/enhance an organization in Nicaragua in regards to children with disabilities. I have a few ideas based on my travels in Central America so far, and I am looking for opportunities to expand my experiences and to learn more in partnership with an individual or an organization that has shared interest in creating opportunities for equality for those with disabilities in Nicaragua.

    I would love to have the opportunity to speak with you regarding some of the work in which you are currently involved. I am also looking at returning again in the next year, possibly as an intern if I can find an opportunity, as I conduct research for my intent to create an organization, as well as to complete my Senior Capstone research.

    Please let me know if there would be an opportunity for us to speak about some of my ideas. Ideally, I would love to meet you and see some of your successes first hand during my trip.