Providing tools to achieve truly inclusive education is the goal of a teacher training project that has been ongoing in the Dominican Republic since 2015.

Until recently, in many corners of the world, children who had some disability or showed learning problems grew up within the confines of their home. Any chance of making progress was limited or nullified. This was especially frequent in rural areas of the Dominican Republic. To such an extent that the authorities in that country launched a campaign with the slogan: “Come out of hiding.” “Sometimes, their parents concealed them out of shame; sometimes, through ignorance, their precarious economic condition or because there were no schools where they lived.

In such cases, they were doomed to be marginalized by the incomprehension of their teachers. It was important to show that these children, with their special needs, are entitled to an education. We need to ensure there are places for them and adapt teaching systems,” says Beatriz Gallart.

From Spain, Gallart has been living there for six years, the last four devoted to implementing that idea. As coordinator of the delegation of the InteRed NGO in the Dominican Republic, she oversees the Diploma in Inclusive Education her NGO – in collaboration with Fundación MAPFRE and several local official institutions – created in 2015. InteRed understands inclusion in its broadest sense. As the person in Spain responsible for the Dominican Republic delegation, Ana García Morales, explains that “the aim is to ensure that education reaches all children, regardless of their circumstances, their particular situations and their capabilities, which may be very different.” They focus on any diversity we may come across in the classroom. “You find children with some kind of motor or intellectual disability; with Down syndrome or autism; but also blind or deaf children, etc. That’s the reality. But there are also those with hyperactivity, inattention or attention deficit, etc., or who have a complex reality at home, with their family or their immediate environment, which also affects their learning process,” she explains.

The Diploma course targets public education teachers, as well as professionals working with children at risk of exclusion. The objective is to provide these educators with specific tools so that they can give their pupils the education they deserve. Until now, the teachers experienced frustration every time one of these children came into their class. “At first, they told us that they felt it was a burden, and guilty because they didn’t know how to respond,” Beatriz Gallart states. “When they have a pupil with some kind of disability, they sometimes don’t even know exactly what syndrome they have. There are teachers who don’t want them and throw them straight out of the class, and the parents take them home. Or the school leadership team moves them to another class, as another teacher is willing to accept them.

This happens continuously. There is no capacity for response within schools for this.” Outside the schools, the care centers for children with a disability do know how to act, “but they only intervene occasionally,” Gallart adds. “They work on coordination, if that is the problem, or speech, but that child has to participate in society, and the school is a social space in which they must be integrated. Through this Diploma course, they have learned ways to intervene.”

So, every year, in the Poveda Cultural Center of Santo Domingo – an institution of recognized prestige in the country, specializing in teacher training – 40 teachers, psychologists, physiotherapists and other health professionals attend this Inclusive Education Diploma course. With a duration of 172 hours, it is divided into several modules imparted over five months (classes are generally held on Saturdays, so as not to interfere with the educators’ daily work routine). “The faculty sometimes lacks strategies, that habit of researching, studying, continuously rethinking how to give classes, so as to hone their skills and thus enable their students to develop their capabilities to the full. In a classroom you may come across very different realities, and the teacher faces an important challenge: firstly, to identify such diversity and, then, to be able to respond adequately. That is the key objective,” Ana García Morales explains. The selection process to take the course is agreed upon with the Dominican Republic Ministry of Education. The professionals imparting the classes are local specialists in each of the different fields.

The project has grown over the past four years. The program becomes more ambitious with each year that passes. Since last year, the course includes a practical part. Since last year, the course includes a practical part. Divided into groups, the participants first have to undertake theoretical research into a particular problem and, afterwards, visit a specialist center.

“At the end of the course, they have to detail what plan of action they followed in their place of work, and what impact it had,” says Gallart, clearly excited about it’s evolution. “It has now been suggested we should offer a master course,” she boasts. InterRed has been operating since 1995 undertaking various initiatives in the Dominican Republic. “This is a country with a great potential and a highly motivated civil society; despite its complexity, it’s a nice place to work and very open to positive changes,” Gallart adds.

Education as a driver of change

Education is one of the fundamental pillars of Fundación MAPFRE’s social action work. It is also one of InteRed’s key lines of action, focusing on inclusiveness and, in this case, targeting educators. The latter are considered key actors for ensuring the personal and social development of children and youngsters. “Education is the driver of change in any society,” is the view of Ana García Morales. “Having access to education furthers your personal development. It offers you opportunities not just at a professional level, but also on a personal level, multiplying the options for your fulfillment. The possibility of participating in society, in your community, interacting with your family… That is the basis of an individual’s development. That’s why we speak of transformative education: it broadens our knowledge, but also values, visions and ways of understanding the world. And that’s going to lead to us living and participating in this world in a different way, something that will affect our well-being, of course, and that of all those around us.”

These initiatives end up forming a kind of chain, in which all the actors involved learn something. The teachers enhance their skills. Some of them have truly striking stories to tell, such as that of Nathali Jiménez, an educator in a penitentiary center and, at the same time, the mother of a child with cerebral palsy. “I’ve learned that the concept of inclusive education implies that all children, young people and adults within a given community can learn together, regardless of their circumstances, whether personal, social, cultural, religious, etc. Today I feel a great responsibility to transmit and apply what I’ve learned, for I was trained to make that change and be a more inclusive person,” Jiménez declares.

The teacher faces an important challenge: firstly, to identify such diversity and, then, to be able to respond adequately.

Our pupils reap the benefit of what we teachers have assimilated. And, finally, the organizers themselves can learn a great deal from it. These projects spawn highly enriching synergies, with the result that an experience in the Dominican Republic may end up contributing ideas for setting up a similar project elsewhere in the world. This is confirmed by Andrés Díaz, InteRed’s program coordinator. “It’s not just a question of going there and approving a project; rather, we want that experience to have an impact on other projects we’re running, albeit with different realities.” For example, the knowledge acquired in the Dominican Republic program could feed into actions such as that which InteRed is now initiating in order to address intercultural and gender topics with minors newly arrived in Spain. “In the future, we’d like to see certain experiences offering feedback to others,” he states. Moreover, collaborating with Fundación MAPFRE is of great value to InteRed. “Contrasting ways of working constitutes an important learning opportunity for us,” Díaz believes. In a couple of phases of this project, MAPFRE personnel imparted some of the modules within the teacher training process.

At present, the Diploma course is a robust, deeply-rooted project within the education system in this country. “We’ve consolidated an education intervention strategy based on inclusiveness. Likewise, we’ve established a consortium of various kinds of organizations – governmental, private, social, etc. – united by a common goal. And that’s having a positive impact on educational policy in the Dominican Republic. In just four years we’ve produced a working model. We’re fostering small changes that entail really big changes for each person who completes this training course. It modifies their daily work at school,” Gallart points out. “And that impacts positively on children and their parents.”