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Doctoral Students in Special Education Train Teachers in Bolivia

by Brad Duncan

While visiting the African countries of Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya in 2000, Ruby Owiny noticed an underlying lack of knowledge among local educators concerning students with disabilities. Through conversations with these teachers and students, Owiny came to realize that students who were not in school or had repeated grades several times might be suffering from disabilities and that their teachers were not equipped with the means or the knowledge of how to accommodate such students.

Owiny wanted to develop a way to help teachers in developing countries learn how to make instruction accessible to all children, and she considered starting an orphanage or a school dedicated to serving these children. As a master’s student in Learning and Behavior Disorders at Asbury in 2003, Owiny found an opportunity to help teachers in Bolivia develop an understanding of how to better meet diverse needs of students thanks to Project REACH (Recognizing and Encouraging All Children’s Hopes) and the Food for the Hungry organization. In 2004, she returned to provide instruction on characteristics of disabilities and strategies for helping students overcome the challenges they face.

“Teachers in the village areas of Bolivia are required by the government to teach a minimum of two years in the poor, rural villages before being assigned to a school in the city,” said Owiny, now a doctoral student in the UK College of Education Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation Counseling. “Because these teachers often resent this requirement, they do not always give their best efforts to their students. When the teacher mentoring program in Bolivia was in its third year, I enrolled at UK and realized the need for further education, not only for knowing better research-based methodologies to include in our trainings, but also for credibility with foreign governments and their teachers.”

At UK, Owiny met fellow doctoral student Jeremy Mills, who had traveled to Bolivia several years prior and was interested in returning. Mills, a high school special education teacher in Jessamine County, Ky., joined the core team that also includes Amy Wade, a speech/language pathologist near Dayton, Ohio, and Kristin Knowles, a first- and second-grade teacher in Jessamine County.

“I was blessed with the opportunity to participate in this program,” Mills said, “but I did not fully realize the deep need within the country until our trip this past summer. My heart has grown for the people of Bolivia. The Bolivians we worked with displayed a genuine desire to serve and to learn.”

Owiny also has seen the teachers” understanding and have become empowered to evoke change by using the strategies Owiny and her team teach them. But she also believes that it is important not to duplicate the United States” system of education so that the teachers can find ways to use the information provided to them in culturally sensitive ways.

“When we first went in 2003, teachers were willing to teach only those who could learn easily,” Owiny said. “The teachers have developed more sensitivity to their students who struggle. We have seen progress in the attitudes of the teachers toward their students who have challenges as they’ve seen progress in their students’ achievement.”