Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Spain, Part 1

Our trip to Spain started out fine but to say we had a bit of a hiccup would be a gross understatement. The shuttle picked up Stéph, his colleague A and I in Tiny Town and got us to the airport with just enough time to spare, but we learned at the check in counter that our second leg, from Madrid to Malaga, was on a different airline and we'd have to re-check in our bags in Madrid. With an hour layover. Yes, thank you so much, Star Alliance!

So of course we left Paris a half hour late. Guess what happened in Madrid?

Well, it turned out for the best, as we were given first class seats (as fancy as you can get for a two hour flight, but still) and access to the VIP lounge for the three hour wait. Of course VIP jokes were peppered throughout the rest of the trip.

So we arrived in Marbella rather late on our first day, and were collected by our host J, driven to our hotel where we dropped off our stuff, had a quick powder of the nose and headed out on the town. We made a brief stop at the Museum of Contemporary Engravings (a brief description here and the Museum's website here [Spanish only]) and made a quick tour of the town before meeting the rest of the group and enjoying the first of many meals made up of tapas.

Our first full day in Marbella was mostly made up by visiting several schools. This was the third and last year of the program (much to my and Stéph's disappointment!) and this year the Spanish hosts decided to concentrate on their varied and diverse programs for the handicapped and learning disabled.

For about ten years, Spanish law has dictated that schools must do all it can to integrate students with learning disabilities, handicaps and severe disabilities into their regular schools. This is something I'm used to from growing up in the States, but I'm sad to say that it is still a revolutionary idea for the French. As we visited classrooms for children with severe autism, study rooms for children with speech impediments (much like the class I was in back in first grade), another classroom for children with mental retardation, all under the roof of one elementary school, Stéph and A were completely fascinated.

After a complete tour of the enormous elementary school (which was easily double the size of our school in Tiny Town and it was not the only school in Marbella!), we visited a middle school and also received a tour of the classrooms for those with learning disabilities. They have started an amazing program for children that will not be able to continue their education in the traditional way - the director recently got involved with the local theatre and now the teenagers work on sets and costumes for upcoming productions and let me tell you - their work is outstanding! They had a proper costuming room and scene shop and have the help of local carpenters who give them the chance to apprentice and learn their craft.

Then we visited a class for children with severe handicaps. These children will never be able to live on their own, and yet here they were in school with their peers. In their class, they had a kitchen, where they learned to wash up after meals, a large bathroom to better learn hygiene, a small bedroom to practice making their beds, and a classroom area that doubled as a kitchen table for lunch time. Again, the French were flabbergasted and one even said, "We have a long way to go."

Just as an aside, I have never, not even once, seen a severely handicapped person in the four years I've lived in France. I'm not the first person to make this observation, but it is as if the French are ashamed of their handicapped. Children with disabilities receive "education" in an institution and seem to have very little contact with their peers outside of a family setting. I truly hope this changes in the future and that the French will eventually adopt something close to the Spanish model. Our hosts told us that it wasn't easy in the beginning, but ten years on their hard work is truly paying off.

Since our visit was an education conference, I did want to make a point that it wasn't all beaches and tourism! I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn about yet another country's education system, especially one that truly strives to integrate children with handicaps into everyday life.

Next time - yes, we did touristy things, too!

Edited to add: I've just realized (thanks to a comment, thanks PMF!) that I may be misrepresenting something. There are some classes in regular schools available for minor learning disabilities. I oughta know, since that's what Stéph taught at a middle school level (called SEGPA, info in French) for five years before going back to primary school. These are children that will go on to apprentice and eventually work blue collar jobs. They won't take the bac and many may even drop out at sixteen. However, children that just need extra help in writing, speech therapy or the like would need to see a specialist outside of school.

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