A brighter future - Children with special needs in Kosovo receive more education opportunities
Vjosa Asllani is 11 year old, and she has Down Syndrome. She is one of 105 students at the special school which is an annex to the regular primary school Naim Frasheri in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. She jumps from the stage where she is surrounded by her schoolmates and her teacher, and she says full of joy ‘I am going to be a queen, I am a queen’ Vjosa is rehearsing for her role at a theatre play which is prepared as part of special activities oranised during the spring school break.
It’s the spring break, and as in many other places, schools in Kosovo are closed. The number of out of school activities are limited, but here at the Naim Frasheri school, there are around 200 children per day attending activities for two weeks during the break. They have theater performances, drawings, singing, sports and games which encourage positive thinking and attitudes and boost their learning potentials. Children are enthusiastically engaged in their activities, they compete and support each other, there are colorful drawings on the walls, and the sound of children’s singing and laughter echoes joyfully, breaking the silence of the grey, empty building.
Children with special needs in Kosovo had a grey past. They were often stigmatised by their peers and the community, they were kept hidden at home considered as the shame of the family. Education opportunities were almost non existent. Even today, many years after the reforms in the system were introduced, only around 10 per cent of children with special needs have access to any form of education.
UNICEF supports the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) to develop policies which enable friendly and inclusive environment for all children including children with special needs, but the implementation of those policies requires time and commitment by everyone. Activities such as the one in Naim Frasheri school are a model introduced by UNICEF, implemented by the NGO TEMA, and the aim is to expand that model in all special schools.
Ms. Lumnije Shala is the coordinator of the project at TEMA ‘During the whole school year we organise joint classes between children from the regular school and children from the special school. Teachers are now trained to deliver the classes with appropriate methods and children are getting used to each other. We have managed to integrate some of the children from the special school at the regular school, and we aim to make a systematic transition for as many children as possible. The spring activities are just one additional component, and this year we have had a tremendous interest by parents and children to participate in these activities,’ says Ms. Shala.
This year, there are also many young graduate students from the education department who have volunteered for the summer activities at Naim Frasheri. Rrahim Veseli, one of the young volunteers is amazed with the changes and transformation he has seen in some of the children. ‘This is an excellent experience for me. I wouldn’t exchange this job for any other type of job! I feel I can make a difference, I can introduce new methods, develop individual plans for children. We as teachers can create a lot of opportunities for children with special needs in the classroom’
Parents’ participation in the education of children with special needs is crucial. Sanije Isufi is a mother who supports the organization of the out of school activities. Her daughter is also in the special school. At the closing day, after two weeks activities there is a short theater play and a singing performance. Parents like Ms. Isufi are asked to come and help in preparing the event. Ms. Isufi speaks with a lot of emotions ‘It’s difficult for me to explain how much these two weeks activities meant to me and my daughter. Most of all I am impressed with the support of my daughter’s schoolmates. At home she has the support of the family, but that is not enough. She needs to spend time with other children, she needs to socialize, she needs to learn from her peers too.’
The aim of the project is to support the national policy of inclusion of children with disabilities into mainstream schools. Today, there are in total seven special schools and 70 attached classes all over Kosovo. Until now, three special schools have been transformed into resource centres, which offer multiple services for children with special needs and the plan is to transform all seven schools.
Ms. Lulavere Kadriu the head of the Department for Special Education at the MEST says ‘The attitudes of parents have changed a lot. There are parents who knock on my door every day to ask for better quality of education for their children with special needs. This never happened until few years ago. Parents are much more aware about the importance of education for the development of their children. They are much more demanding and ready to support in any form.’
Very often reforms in the education system are slow and exhausting. They require financial resources, commitment, capacities and changes in attitudes of teachers, administrators, parents and children themselves. These changes do not happen overnight and not always the results of the reforms are easily visible. But looking at Vjosa, and many other children with different special needs at the final day of the summer school activities in Naim Frasheri school indicates that the grey era is over, and that the future for children with special needs in Kosovo is much brighter.
Vjosa is the lead character in the theatre play. She plays the Siren who will protect all innocent sea animals from the threats of the shark. She has had all the support from the teacher and her friends, to learn her text by heart. She comes to the stage dressed as a Siren, excited by the presence of the huge audience, she asks everyone to be quiet, she closes her eyes and says solemnly ‘I am the Siren - queen of the sea, I will save you all’.