As a graduate teacher in the Special Education Unit of the Ministry of Education in Dominica, Nutrice Francis remembers well her optimism following a 2017 bit of good news from the prime minister.
Special education in the Caribbean islands is “at the emergent stage” and “evolving,” Francis says, and many teachers remain unequipped to effectively serve their students with special needs.
“Three years ago, the prime minister was very interested in special education. When he announced the national budget for that year, the largest lump sum of money was to actually train teachers in special education, so it’s something they recognize is needed,” Francis says.
“It’s a dire situation in schools where we have students who are not learning, and teachers not knowing what to do, and the problem gets worse because they don’t get the immediate help that they need.”
Consequently, she says, the drop-out rate is rising. By the time some students with special needs reach secondary schools, she says, they begin to wonder: “If I’m not learning, what am I doing here? If I’m not good at it, what I am doing here?”
But the funding would never come.
Hurricane Maria arrived instead, “and all of that disappeared. The money had to be redirected.”
For Francis, the natural catastrophe – and the resulting loss of those precious dollars – steeled her determination to advance her career and to make a difference for students.
The Fulbright Foreign Student Program enables graduate students, young professionals and artists from abroad to study and conduct research in the United States. Around 4,000 foreign students receive Fulbright scholarships each year through the program, which operates in more than 160 countries worldwide.
Francis’ pursuit of her M.S.Ed. in Special Education is only the latest stop on a journey that began years ago.
“I always wanted to be a teacher. My grandfather was a teacher and principal. My aunt was a teacher also, so I guess teaching is in the blood. It’s in our DNA,” she says.
“Special education just happened. I was trying to find myself, trying to understand my purpose. I was given this book by Rick Warren – ‘The Purpose Driven Life’ – and at the same time, I got my first job at a primary school. From there, I moved to the only special education school on the island at that time, and then I realized: This is what I want.”
Francis earned a bachelor’s degree in Jamaica, funded by the Government of Dominica.
“Like they say, the more you learn, the more you want to learn. After my first degree, I knew that I wanted to learn more. I wanted to do more. I still want to do more. This is what I needed to do,” she adds. “I’ve never been to the states, which is pioneering in this field, and I knew I wanted to get the knowledge from here. My program adviser alerted me to NIU.”
NIU professors are “personable,” “easy to understand” and “interested in what I’m doing and interested in my success,” Francis says.
Here, she’s learning about U.S. laws that cover special education, included Individualized Education Programs, as well as the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test.
She’s also learning more about curriculum-based assessment.
All will help when she goes home next year: Assessment is one of her main responsibilities at the Ministry of Education, along with supervision of special education.
“I have added more tools I can use,” she says. “One of the issues we have back home is a limitation in terms of the tools available, and I am the only person doing educational assessment. I can only use what I was trained to use.”
Coursework in best practices also will prove beneficial, Francis says. “After you have discovered that this child has a disability, now you can determine how you can work with that child,” she says.
Lydia Gerzel-Short, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Special and Early Education, calls Francis “a fantastic graduate scholar” and “a change-maker.”
“The perspectives she shares with fellow students is invaluable because she provides a view, that in some ways, is a glimpse into how special education interventions and supports were provided in the United States in the past,” Gerzel-Short says.
“Changes in special education services and delivery models are slow for a variety of reasons, including budgetary, lack of resources, or knowledge about how best to support students with identified needs.”
Gerzel-Short believes Francis now will “create more opportunities for teachers to fine-tune their instructional practices and apply effective interventions within the general education classroom” in Dominica.
Academic advisor Kate Donohue shares that confidence.
“Nutrice is a long way from home, and I can sympathize with how challenging that can be, but she is very hard-working and excited to learn and grow her knowledge in various areas of Special Education,” Donohue says. “She enjoys research, and has been looking for challenging research courses and opportunities.”
Indeed, Francis hopes to lead a time of progress back home upon her return in 2021
She plans to use her master’s degree – and her voice – to advocate for stronger laws and policies regarding special education and to “change the culture of how people look at children in special education.”
“One of the issues we have in special education in Dominica is that there’s not enough respect and appreciation of these children,” Francis says.
“I think we’re still in the times that maybe the U.S. was in the ’70s and ’80s, when people felt that children with special needs couldn’t amount to anything, and therefore, you shouldn’t put any effort behind them,” she adds. “It’s something we need to change from the top, and not just in the classrooms.”