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DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION

Embracing Inclusion: A Transformative Journey at the International Community School of Abidjan

By Dr. Heather Naro and Andrea Lillis
22-Nov-23
Embracing Inclusion: A Transformative Journey at the International Community School of Abidjan


Faculty participate in professional development to support their transition towards a more inclusive school community. (Photo source: International Community School of Abidjan) 


In the evolving landscape of education, the pursuit of progress and growth is paramount. It is through the adoption of transformative themes that school communities can truly strive for excellence. At the International Community School of Abidjan (ICSA), we are thrilled to announce that for the 2023-24 school year, we have embarked on an exhilarating journey centered around the theme of inclusion.

Inclusion, the practice of providing equal opportunities and support for all learners, lies at the core of our vision for the future. The ICSA mission is to learn and lead in a collaborative culture and our vision is to do this in a diverse community that is united in direction. We are acutely aware that students' school experiences are deeply intertwined with their identities, and we are actively seeking ways to affirm and celebrate each individual within the ICSA learning community. Tim Stuart, Regional Education Officer with the Office of Overseas Schools states, “Diversity and Inclusion are two of the top priorities of the US Department of State’s Office of Overseas Schools. In order to accomplish this goal we are pleased to partner with schools like the International Community School of Abidjan and organizations like SENIA. Without partners Like these, we would not be able to reach our goals.”

A Journey Inspired by Audit and Ambition 

In the fall of 2022, two representatives from ICSA traveled to the SENIA International “All In!” Conference in Bonn, Germany where keynote speaker and author Angeline Aow made a lasting impression. She stated in her book, Becoming an Inclusive School (Aow et al., 2022), “It is our responsibility as educators to create an educational ecosystem that is a totally inclusive, liberated landscape where all learners have equitable chances to thrive” (p.222). It is about transforming those systems and structures to make education a better system for all. With Angeline Aow's words echoing in our ears, we recognized the need for transformative changes to ensure that learning at ICSA is accessible to our diverse student population.

Expanding Learning Support

Our journey toward inclusion began with a thorough examination of our school population and a thoughtful reallocation of staff resources. With 250 students in the lower school, representing 75 nationalities, it became apparent that an increase in lower school learning support teaching staff was essential. Consequently, we increased our team to include four dedicated professionals. These learning support teachers now collaborate closely with specific grade levels, enabling them to co-teach and provide targeted support tailored to each student's unique learning needs. They work in tandem with classroom and specialist teachers to ensure that all tiers of support are firmly grounded in research-based practices, with a strong foundation in universal design for learning. This strategic decision guarantees that students in need of tier two and three support receive the individualized attention and care necessary for their success.

In the spring of 2023, we welcomed April Remfrey from Remfrey Educational Consulting to initiate our journey toward becoming a more inclusive school. Her comprehensive audit provided us with a clearer understanding of our strengths and areas for growth. Equipped with this knowledge, we have set ambitious goals to ensure that our school authentically embodies the principles of inclusion. Our ultimate aim is simple yet profound; we aspire to create an environment where all learners' needs are not only acknowledged but also met. By fostering an inclusive community, we seek to celebrate diversity, promote empathy, and equip each student with the necessary tools for success, both academically and personally.

Empowering Our Educators with SENIA Certification

To gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics of an inclusive classroom, ICSA enthusiastically embraced the SENIA International certification program. SENIA International is a non-profit organization dedicated to inclusive education that advocates for neurodiverse and disabled individuals, empowers educators and family members, and fosters global connections. A significant aspect of SENIA’s offerings is its robust professional development focus, which includes conferences and coursework.

SENIA first launched its coursework in April 2022 and has already empowered over 200 educators with courses addressing topics such as Universal Design for Learning, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, and Understanding Behavior. Originally designed to support beginner to intermediate learning support educators, these courses have since found a warm reception among classroom teachers, administrators, and parents eager to better comprehend and support inclusion in their respective settings. In April 2023, SENIA introduced a new course platform and expanded its course catalog to include a Teaching Assistant certification. Additionally, a Level Two certification and additional standalone courses are anticipated in the spring of 2024.

By actively participating in this program, ICSA's homeroom teachers, learning support teachers, and learning assistants are gaining valuable insights and strategies to create an environment conducive to the success of every student. ICSA has the distinction of being the school with the first graduate from the new SENIA Teaching Assistant certification program, earning full certification in August 2023. Furthermore, four ICSA learning assistants have earned Level One Educator certification. By the conclusion of the 2023-24 school year, an impressive 70 percent of the ICSA lower school staff will have received SENIA professional development through conferences and certification, with 26 educators obtaining full SENIA Level One Certification. Asanat Ayilara-Giwa, an assistant in the learning support program, who has successfully completed the SENIA Level One educator certification profoundly believes that "when a tree is not growing, you don’t change the tree; you change the environment." This mindset guides her work with the learning support team to ensure that all needs are met.

ICSA acknowledges that building the capacity of staff across designations to support learners results in stronger systems and provides students and families with a sense of security through consistency. Inclusion is not just the work of learning support teachers or assistants; it is the work of a community. ICSA is adopting a hybrid approach to this professional development by engaging in some courses on the SENIA Academy platform to learn alongside educators from other institutions and engaging in some courses via an in-service model, allowing the team to focus on our specific context.

Global Engagement

ICSA's commitment to inclusion transcends the boundaries of our school. We have proactively sent staff members for training at SENIA Africa and SENIA Europe conferences, enriching their understanding of global best practices in inclusive education. Just as with SENIA certification, we recognized that these conferences would benefit the entire school community and thus ensured that administrators, teachers, and learning assistants had the opportunity to participate in these enriching learning and networking experiences. When administrators understand, embrace, and model inclusive practices, it creates a fertile ground for staff to follow suit, ultimately resulting in a defined culture of inclusion rooted in unified understanding and commitment. Moreover, ICSA has taken the lead in establishing the SENIA West Africa chapter, solidifying our commitment to inclusivity, not only within our school but also within the broader region.

On March 1 - 3, 2024, SENIA International will host a conference at the International School Ho Chi Minh City under the theme "Designing for Inclusion." At this conference, ICSA's lower school principal, Heather Naro, and second-grade teacher, Cindy Huling, will present under the strand of "Designing Equity-Centered Pedagogy and Systems," sharing our school’s inclusive journey to date.

Looking Ahead with Enthusiasm

As we embark on this exhilarating journey, ICSA is brimming with enthusiasm for the transformation that lies ahead. Our overarching goal is to create a learning environment that not only celebrates diversity but also nurtures empathy and equips each student with the tools they need to excel both academically and personally.

Together, as a united school community, we are taking deliberate steps to build a more inclusive and supportive environment where all our students can flourish. As we embark on this adventure, we are reminded of the words of Helen Keller who once said, "Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much." We wholeheartedly believe that together, we will achieve great things and make the International Community School of Abidjan a place where every student shines. Moreover, we strongly urge other educational institutions to consider implementing similar initiatives. By fostering an environment that celebrates diversity, promotes accessibility, and embraces individual differences, we can collectively work towards a more inclusive and equitable educational landscape. We believe that by sharing our experiences and best practices, we can inspire a wave of change that extends beyond our school and enriches the educational experiences of students everywhere."

 

Reference

Aow, Angeline; Hollins, Sadie; Whitehead, Stephen. Becoming a Totally Inclusive School (p. 222). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

 

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Dr. Heather Naro embarked on her international journey in 1992, leaving her home country of Canada behind. She is currently the Lower School Principal at the International Community School of Abidjan. She has been an educator and school leader in Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Nepal, and Kazakhstan. In the summer of 2024, Heather will assume the role of Head of School at Schutz American School. Heather firmly believes in the potential of all students to succeed when provided with the right environment and support. Her passion for education and commitment to empowering students have led her to support all students on their pathway to success.

LinkedIn: Heather Naro, PhD


Andrea Lillis is the Deputy Executive Director of SENIA International. A former elementary school homeroom teacher who focused on student-led inquiry in inclusive environments, Andrea has a Master of Education focused on literacy and has enjoyed teaching in North America, the Middle East, and Asia. She recently repatriated to Canada where she enjoys kayaking, hiking, reading, cooking, and volunteering with local animal rescues.

LinkedIn: Andrea Lillis

 




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