By Brian Messenger
It’s easy for Perkins International Director Dr. W. Aubrey Webson to judge the success of the Educational Leadership Program (ELP).
He always seems to run into at least one ELP graduate whenever he attends an international conference, whether in Asia, Europe or Africa. Often they are there to present their latest paper or research, having risen through the ranks in their home countries to become prominent educators.
Even though they live and work around the globe, the careers of ELP graduates frequently share the same upward trajectory. After studying at Perkins, they emerge as drivers of positive change.
“So many of them are now leaders and contributing to the development of educational services for people with disabilities,” said Webson. “I can’t think of any better testimony than that.”
Perkins has been training teachers from around the world since the 1920s. That mission expanded in 1989 with the launch of the ELP. Every fall for the last 25 years, a select group of promising international educators comes to Perkins School for the Blind to take part in six to nine months of immersive study, advanced training and leadership development.
Each spring they return home with high expectations, having joined the ranks of the more than 250 ELP graduates working all over the world to improve the lives of children with multiple disabilities and visual impairment. Here are three of their remarkable stories.
Xiaguang Peng brought Perkins International’s mission to 1.3 billion people.
Since the late 1990s, Xiaguang has served as a key liaison between Perkins and the Ministry of Education in China. This ongoing collaboration resulted in the successful launch and ongoing expansion of programs for children with multiple disabilities and visual impairment throughout the world’s most populous nation.
“Peng opened the door to China,” said ELP Coordinator Marianne Riggio. “She’s the catalyst for everything we’ve put into action there.”
Xiaguang has worked in Beijing at the National Institute of Education Sciences, which serves as the China education ministry’s research arm, for more than two decades. But it wasn’t until she attended the ELP in 1994 that special education blossomed into her true passion.
“At the beginning I was just like blank white paper,” said Xiaguang. “But after one year in the ELP, I was full of color.”
Upon returning to China from Perkins, Xiaguang was assigned to train teachers in the country’s most rural – and impoverished – counties.
“The children with disabilities there did not have much opportunity to receive education at that time,” she said. “I decided to devote the rest of my life to help people who are disabled.”
Through hard work and her professional relationships with Chinese policymakers, Xiaguang helped lay the groundwork for a special education renaissance. It started in 2001 when Perkins staff conducted teacher trainings at six schools for the blind, focusing their efforts on multiple disabilities and preschool education. Multiple rounds of teacher trainings would follow in the years to come.
Today, the partnership between Perkins and the Ministry of Education has blossomed to the point where more and more educators in China are embracing the concept of education for all students, regardless of disability. Xiaguang has been instrumental in working with the Ministry to develop new national special education regulations that reflect that belief.
“Right now many teachers and administrators know that students with multiple disabilities and visual impairment must be educated,” said Xiaguang. “We do have a long way to go. But I feel confident about the future.”
It wasn’t long ago that students with multiple disabilities and visual impairment in Argentina’s Buenos Aires province only attended school for a few hours per week, if at all.
Delia Gongora and her colleagues set out to change that. Today there are more students with multiple disabilities receiving a quality education in the province than ever before.
“It was a huge transformation,” said Gongora, who began working for the Buenos Aires Ministry of Education in 2011. “We are now very involved with students with multiple disabilities and visual impairment. And most of these students are now going to school every day.”
Gongora graduated from the ELP in 2006. One year later, after returning to Buenos Aires and her job as a special education teacher, she helped conduct a government-sanctioned survey that quantified the shortcomings of multiple disability education in the province.
The survey results sparked much-needed changes. There are now more than 1,300 students with multiple disabilities enrolled in Buenos Aires schools, compared to fewer than 100 roughly a decade ago. The quality of educational services offered has also increased dramatically.
“Delia helped change the system – in a very deliberate, calm and precise manner,” said Steve Perreault, a long-time regional coordinator with Perkins International who now works with the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults. “She transformed not just one school, but many schools in Buenos Aires.”
During her time in the ELP, Gongora said she learned how to advocate for students and work effectively with diverse stakeholders – skills that proved essential to her career.
“I think that I am the educator I am now because of the ELP,” she said.
After being promoted in 2012, Gongora now oversees multiple disability teacher training across the entire province of Buenos Aires, which is Argentina’s most populous with over 15 million people. She credits leadership at the Ministry of Education for supporting teacher trainings and curriculum development that led to widespread improvements for students with multiple disabilities and visual impairment.
“It was step by step,” said Gongora. “I am proud, but it takes a lot of teamwork.”
Adriana Mirabela Orth was already a gifted educator when she arrived at Perkins School for the Blind four years ago.
“She had the raw talent,” said Dennis Lolli, Europe and Eurasia coordinator for Perkins International. “It was just a matter of stoking the fire.”
After graduating from the ELP in 2011, Orth returned to her home city of Timisoara, Romania, with renewed confidence and dedication to the field of special education.
“That’s how I define my life now – before and after Perkins,” said Orth.
Orth works as a special education teacher at the Speranta Center, which is home to the Little Light Project. Founded with help from Perkins International, it is the region’s first educational program for students with multiple disabilities and visual impairment.
In recent years, the Little Light Project has expanded services to include vocational training for children and adolescents. Orth played a leading role in this effort. She believes strongly that similar transition programs should be deployed across Romania.
“My dream is to further develop the vocational program,” said Orth. “With the help of the Romanian Ministry of Education, I want this program model to be recognized nationwide.”
Orth’s impact on the Little Light Project even extended to the mothers of students, many of whom serve as caretakers for their children with multiple disabilities. It’s a demanding role that often leaves no extra time for even a part-time job. Realizing this, Orth organized a weekly workshop where the mothers make handmade cards and decorations while their children attend the program. The items are sold to program sponsors, with all proceeds going back to the families.
Orth is one of three ELP graduates working at the Speranta Center. Looking back, she considers her time at Perkins an invaluable experience.
“I am so grateful to every Perkins employee that opened up their classroom to me,” she said. “They helped guide my steps to becoming who I am today.”