The cities of Boston, MA and Nashville, TN played host to a group of fifteen education policymakers and practitioners from Ireland and Northern IrelandBoston College and funded through the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The Irish Institute’s mission is to support the peace and reconciliation process on the island through the provision of educational seminars and programs for public officials, business leaders, and educators. This is the tenth year in which their programs have received funding from the U.S. Government. in December last. The visitors were participants on a program entitled "Inclusive Education in a Diverse Society,” a ten-day study visit organized by the Irish Institute at
Ireland and Northern Ireland have experienced unprecedented levels of immigration in the past ten years and the challenge has been to ensure that the schools in both jurisdictions reach out to welcome and include newcomers whatever their origin. As in the U.S., schools were already trying to address how best to include other groups of non-traditional students, whether religious minorities or those with learning and physical challenges. The goal of this program was to offer participants insight into the development of an inclusive school culture (and curriculum) in which students of diverse cultural, economic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds and different physical abilities can feel welcome. While in the U.S., the group undertook a series of academic seminars and meetings with American education experts, school leaders, and NGOs involved in promoting inclusive educational policies and practices.
The Boston, Massachusetts segment of the program began with a focus session entitled “A Shared Vision of Inclusive Education” with Ms. Catherine Wong, Director of Urban Outreach Initiatives, Lynch School of Education, Boston College. Each participant approached the topic of inclusive education in light of his or her own area of professional experience, but this seminar was intended to demonstrate that the principle of inclusion remains the same across all the different categories of approach. This session was followed by a meeting with David Riley, Ph.D., Executive Director, Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative, Education Development Center (EDC) and representatives from the Inclusive Schools Week initiative. Participants attended seminars with Professor Marilyn Cochran-Smith, John E. Cawthorne Professor of Education and Director of the Doctoral Program in Curriculum and Instruction, Boston College (“Diversity, Equity and Social Justice in Teacher Education”) and with Professor Irwin Blumer, Research Professor in Educational Administration and Higher Education, Boston College (“The U.S. Educational System in Perspective”). These seminars provided the group with the groundwork to build upon their understanding of inclusive education as it exists in the United States. Following the seminars, the group met with GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders) to hear about the groundbreaking legal advocacy the organization has undertaken in MA public schools. Participants met with Cambridge Schools Superintendent Dr. Thomas Fowler-Finn, who spent a morning outlining both some of the challenges and some of the examples of best practice in the school district. The cohort then divided into two groups; one to visit the bilingual Amigos Elementary School and the other to visit Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School. They reconvened at a working lunch where they were able to compare notes from their respective visits and to speak one-on-one with teachers from the Amigos School. The Boston segment also included a visit to the Codman Academy Charter School, where participants met with Founding President Mr. Bill Walczak and where they learned about the unique history of the school and where they took part in a lively discussion about the merits of the charter school system.
The second week of the program brought the participants to Nashville, Tennessee. They began with a discussion around the documentary Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later that was intended to frame the historical challenges of inclusive education. Participants visited the Metro Nashville Public Schools where they met with administrators from the award-winning Customer Service Center and educators from the English Language Learners Center, an onsite pilot school geared especially toward immigrant children new to a school setting. A meeting with directors of Alignment Nashville and the Children's Health Initiative Nashville to support community educational initiatives for children in the Nashville Metropolitan area. Participants then visited the Cora Howe Elementary School, a pre-K to 4th grade school that includes many non-native English speakers. The Head Start philosophy was showcased and discussed at the Susan Gray Head Start Center just outside Nashville. Continuing the discussion on Head Start programs and other early intervention philosophies, Professor Dale Farran, Departments of Vanderbilt University and colleagues led a seminar and discussion on “Preschool as ‘Intervention’ for Children from High Risk Backgrounds.” A highlight of the program was a meeting with Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in which he discussed civic initiatives designed to strengthen public education in Nashville. Several of the participants were principals themselves so a meeting with the directors of the Principals’ Leadership Academy of Nashville (PLAN) was arranged to discuss the options and value of professional development opportunities for principals offered by a program like PLAN. The program concluded with a visit to the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition hosted by David Lubell and colleagues to provide an overview of the challenges immigrant communities are facing in the vast metropolitan area.