School Visits and Life in New Zealand

IMG_20180208_121057Its hard to believe I have been in New Zealand for three weeks already.  I have been keeping busy exploring, making connections in schools, and reading.  The top photo is from a hike I did with my roommate called the Paekakariki Escarpment Track.  It was an easy train ride out of the city and a beautiful 10k hike.  We decided to go at 2pm, and felt the wrath of the New Zealand sun.  Apparently, there is a hole in the ozone near New Zealand, which makes their sun and UV rays very intense.  Most restaurants and cafes have public sunscreen available for everyone.  I have also attended my first cricket match, visited a few schools, rented bikes in Martinborough (the photo above), attended a play in New Zealand Sign Language, visited Sommes Island and birded, stayed over night at a Marae, attended two powhiris, met with a someone from the Ministry of Education, played Kahoot with a group of sweet middle schoolers, worked in beautiful cafes, and bought fish off a boat.  Its been an incredible whirlwind of getting to know the city and trying to make connections with local schools.  Below are some photos from the last few weeks.



Inclusion is huge in New Zealand, not just in schools, but also in society.  People with disabilities are expected to participate alongside their peers and New Zealand does a wonderful job removing barriers to access.  New Zealanders, Kiwis, actively seek out ways to be inclusive.  Every museum I have attended has New Zealand Sign Language displays, parks have braille markers, all buses are wheelchair accessible, plays have audio guides for those who are blind, there are service dog run areas, there are national web accessibility standards, and so much more.  Its refreshing to be in a country that places an emphasis on inclusion and has progressive policies regarding this.  One of my favorite things is to walk around and notice the different ways that New Zealand works to be inclusive.  Below are just two photos of the many examples I see daily.

I write this journal entry as House Bill 620 just passed in a 225 to 192 vote in the United State’s House of Representatives.   If it passes through the Senate, we will remove incentive for businesses to comply with ADA and instead shift the burden to those with disabilities who are being denied access.  In a letter from over 200 disabilities rights groups, the authors make the following statement, “The ADA has been law for almost 27 years. By this time, business owners have had ample notice of the ADA’s requirements and opportunity to remove barriers. If, after 27 years, a business has continued to not comply with the requirements of this legislation, why should a person have to wait more time for enforcement of their civil rights?”  It is an interesting and unfortunate contrast between the two countries.  There are wonderful people in the United States pushing for accessibility and organizations that go above and beyond to provide accessible access; however, our government is implementing regressive politics regarding this.   I hope that the United States follows New Zealand’s lead on inclusivity, but with this new legislation it seems like less of a possibility.

My project is moving in a different direction than I had originally anticipated.  Some of the programs I had wanted to observe are quite different in implementation and may not be suitable for my project or the work that I am doing in the United States.  New Zealand’s strong push for inclusion in schools is wonderful, but there are still many issues being worked out.  Ideally, inclusion would follow the model below, but there are not enough resources to support this model for all students to receive this level of support.


Since starting my research, I have found that there are some huge differences between the US model of special education and New Zealand’s, mainly there are not any special education trained teachers in New Zealand and students with mental health issues do not receive any special education support.  All teachers have the same teacher training and enter the school and are assigned a role.  Teacher training programs may include a lecture on special education, but its also possible that new teachers will have never had any formal teaching about special education.  This model means there are not any teachers with specific training in special education entering schools.  Teachers are entering the classrooms here with a limited understanding of disabilities and learning differences.  I have been told stories of parents of children with autism who are paying for their child’s teacher to to go professional development and training in order to improve their child’s education.   The other big difference is that New Zealand does not have a special education label of emotional and behavioral disorder/ emotionally impaired and does not consider mental illness a disability.  This model really limits resources available to schools in supporting children with severe emotional and behavioral disorders.

Despite not having adequate resources or training (which is very familiar to teachers in the United States), New Zealand’s schools are doing really exciting things with children with special needs.  Student voice and agency are really pushed here.  Also, most schools are pulling local community resources into the schools.  Every school I have met with so far has a partnership with several outside agencies that are providing free or reduced cost services to the students.  Some of these agencies are; a local nurse providing sex education and contraceptives to high school students, a boxing gym teaching the students the sport and offering free sessions in the gym during after school/ summer hours, senior centers in the area teaching gardening skills, local restaurants working with culinary skills, and universities offering tutoring services by teachers in training.

One of the schools that I have visited a few times so far, is comprised of students who have been excluded from their mainstream school and sent to this school.  The process is very similar to Beacon Day Treatment.  The biggest difference is that the students are not considered to be receiving special education services, which leads to even more limited funding.  All of the kids there have severe behavior problems that have kept them out of their mainstream school.  The school is structured fairly similar to Beacon as well; they have an incentive based program, the program is focused on relationship building, they do daily group conversations, and the students are expected to work quietly during work time.  The first time I visited it was difficult not to frame everything around Beacon.  The program is very small, it can only accept ten students who are either in year 10 or 11.  The school has 4 staff all together; 1 administrator/ teacher, 1 teacher, and 2 youth service workers.  These 4 staff do all of the operational aspects of the school (janitorial services, secretary services, etc.), as well as the educational component.  I am blown away by their creativity with using their limited resources to provide the students with a quality, comprehensive education.

The staff at the school wanted to find a way to engage the students more in their learning and behavior.  They created an online dashboard to engage students with their academic and behavioral progress.  Through the dashboard they monitor their progress in their classes, set behavior goals, and track their milestones within the program.  I spent some time talking with 3 of the students the other day.  The school invited me to participate in their weekly lunch and help cook with the the girls in the program.  The kids decided to make pancakes and bacon (an American inspired breakfast for me) and I helped with limited guidance (I have never made bacon in my life) and mainly just asked questions about their educational experiences and they were able to ask me questions about the United States (Why is your small our large?  Have you seen the movie Eight Mile?  How many flavors of oreos are there?).  The girls talked about how happy they are at the school and how they feel supported.   Something they all agreed upon was that they had much more ownership of their learning and behavior in this program.   They used the dashboard program to monitor their academics and behavior, they also feel comfortable discussing the data on here and using it to lead conversations with their parents, teachers, and outsiders, like myself.  This program gives students a platform to exercise their voice and autonomy with their education.

I have only been in a few schools so far, but based on what I have seen and the conversations I am having with other NZ educators, student voice is the direction that my project is moving in.  Students are expected to have autonomy and be a partner in their education.  I want to look at student voice in the k-12 setting as a means to improve post-secondary outcomes for children with disabilities.  Despite faults in New Zealand’s special education system, children with disabilities are still fairing better upon graduation than in the United States.  I want to look at this data through the lens of student voice.  When students have a strong voice that is heard by their schools and communities, they are engaged and empowered.  They are able to take these skills with them when they graduate and use their voice to advocate for themselves.  I want to examine strategies that have been successful in increasing voice and agency for students with emotional and behavioral disorders.

*Disclaimer: This is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

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Gabrielle Popp

My name is Gabrielle Popp. I am a high school English teacher at a center based special education school for children with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. I work with children from all over Wayne County, Michigan. This February, I will be going to New Zealand on a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grant. I am looking forward to researching best practices on increasing community engagement opportunities for children and adults with special needs. This blog is an opportunity to share my insights and thoughts about teaching special education in the United States and aboard.

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