Like most buildings in this city, Escuela Solidaridad con Panama (the “Solidarity with Panama School”) looks a little run-down on the outside.
Inside is a whole different story. The school bustles with activity with brightly painted rooms barely containing the joy and laughter of the 132 kids for whom this is home. Here they are lovingly cared for and taught by a dedicated staff of special needs education teachers for whom this is clearly a calling, not a job.
“These children are our treasure,” says Director Esther La O Ochoa, who has led this school since shortly after its founding in 1989. It is one of 396 special needs schools throughout this island nation that care for and educate more than 60,000 special needs kids.
Escuela Solidaridad con Panama specializes in kids with mobility disabilities. Twenty are confined to wheelchairs, though “confined” hardly seems to describe their energy and determination. Others have various palsies or are missing limbs. A few are here more temporarily while they recover from accidents.
But as one student tells the group of visiting U.S. religious leaders under the auspices of the National Council of Churches, “Here we are one family.”
“We are concerned with potential,” Esther says. “The damage and disability is already there and we can do nothing about that. So we are concerned with educational and social and vocational and artistic development so they can maximize their potential.”
Students are assigned to Escuela Solidaridad con Panama ― and the other special needs schools in Cuba ― by a government “evaluation center,” which determines which of the special needs schools is most appropriate for each child. Teachers are sent to the homes of children who are too disabled to attend school.
“No student is unattended,” Esther says. “Every child gets the attention they need.”
In 2012 Cuba will celebrate the 50th anniversary of special education in the country ― one of the innovations of Fidel Castro’s revolution that didn’t exist prior to his 1959 triumph. Esther proudly announces that Castro attended the school’s 1989 dedication.
Teachers are specially trained at Cuba’s universities. The first two years are spent in the classroom. The final two years leading to a bachelor’s degree are divided between classes and practical experience in the special needs schools. Opportunities for graduate study are also available and continuing education throughout a teacher’s career is required.
“The U.S. has very good programs too and we would love to have teacher exchanges,” Esther says, “but it is too difficult with the blockade and other U.S. travel restrictions.”
Children at Escuela Solidaridad con Panama take a full curriculum of academic subjects, plus a wide variety of vocational training according to their interests and abilities ― from beadmaking and hairdressing to simpler art projects and carpentry. The most popular subject for most students is the computer lab. Though the computers are antiquated, the kids are adept at getting the most out of them.
Which, of course, is the whole point of Escuela Solidaridad con Panama.
“These children learn the academic subjects and receive job training,” Esther says. “But most importantly, we want them to learn about life.”