Building Bridges, Creating Hope

In the summer of 2010 I visited Cordoba, Argentina, on a Fullbright International Education Administrators Program Scholarship to observe how students with learning disabilities are supported in Argentine schools, and the specific roles and responsibilities that teachers and administrators share to support students with these disabilities in a general education setting.

After completing all phases of the selection process, I learned on July 20, 2009 that I was the finalist to participate in the exchange with Mr. Miguel Gianansi, vice principal of Roma School in Cordoba. That October, a group of 45 administrators from all over the United States and our Argentine counterparts were invited to Washington D.C. for an orientation, where we reviewed the program’s aim to “increase mutual understanding and form lasting connections between educators around the world.” We also saw presentations on Argentina’s educational systems and cultural and economic development.

Following the orientation, we returned home with our counterpart for a three-week shadowing experience to provide our visiting administrators with insight into the American school system through classroom observations of best instructional practices. During this time, Mr. Gianasi lived and worked with me, observing firsthand the successes and challenges of Mack, Menlo, and Weemes Elementary Schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

Then it was my turn. June 24, 2010, was my first day at Roma School. Upon my arrival, I was greeted by a billboard with the American and Argentine flag welcoming me to the school community. Shortly after, I was introduced during the school assembly; and visited classrooms for all grade levels. Later, I presented to teachers and staff on the American school system, emphasizing current educational trends in accountability, data driven curriculum, and special education inclusion models. Teachers were particularly intrigued by our high-stakes test-taking accountability system, especially at the elementary level. Argentine students are not required to take formal assessments until their second year of high school, especially students with learning disabilities. I also observed that most students with mild to moderate disabilities are fully integrated into the general education classroom.

The vast majority of special needs students served at Roma School were identified with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and orthopedic impairments. They were accommodated by ramps, classroom modifications, and support providers. I was interested to learn if they had students with autism given the large number of students recently identified in the U.S. with the disorder. According, to school statistics, there were none and overall the disability is hardly known to exist in Argentina. While autism is not a challenge that seems to be plaguing the Argentine population or impacting the educational system, other challenges exist such as higher than average dropout rates.

The following day, I visited a private school where my counterpart works as a pedagogical advisor, similar to the literacy and math coaches we have in LAUSD. This is not common in public schools as only private schools can afford a coach. Interestingly students with disabilities were not present at this private school. They are left to the public school system to obtain services and education, not unlike in Los Angeles.

On June 27, we began our journey to Altas Cumbres (High Peaks) to visit the Mario Romerino Rural School. It is staffed by just two teachers, and serves 31 students K-6. The school was in dire need of basic materials such as books, running water, and heating. However, the students, staff, and parents were unphased: they greeted us with signs, cheers, and decorations.

Casas posing with Roma School first-grade classes and teachers, center Ms. Norma Giordado and left substitute teacher. Cordoba, Argentina.

Over 17 years, I have had the opportunity to work in various schools in LAUSD. In contrast to Argentine schools, we have an abundance of materials, resources, and funding. Nevertheless, American teachers and administrators—myself included—often complain that we do not have enough resources and funding. I wish that most of our teachers and administrators could see for themselves the grim realities with which teachers and administrators in developing countries contend. This would be a very powerful staff development opportunity that would elicit a greater sense of sensitivity and appreciation for the resources we often take for granted. With this in mind, I invite every teacher and school administrator to apply for the Fulbright exchange program to witness for themself what can only be seen on the ground.

I am now involving my local school community in fundraisers and donation drives to collect books, supplies, world maps, computers, and other resources to support my counterpart’s students in Altas Cumbres and Cordoba. Without a doubt, the experience has allowed me to provide better support for my students at home, and create “lasting connections” with my colleagues in Argentina.

Joseph Casas (MS ’98, Administration, Educational Leadership Academy) is the assistant principal and elementary instructional specialist of Gridley Elementary School in San Fernando, California and Valley Region No. 9 in Van Nuys, California.

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