Effort to send Portland teacher, supplies to Bangladesh could have lasting impact on nation's special education
A Portland Police Bureau program to send officers to train in Bangladesh has grown into an educational partnership no one could have imagined.
And when 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year Brett Bigham heads there next month, some hope it could even spark a nationwide change in attitudes there against children with disabilities.
"In Bangladesh, they don't educate children with special needs, so it's groundbreaking," Bigham said of the inclusive school in Rajshahi, where he will go in March. "They are the only ones in Bangladesh who are doing this."
The journey to this point started in 2011, when longtime police bureau volunteer Dave Smith went to Bangladesh with four Portland police officers as part of a U.S. Department of Justice grant. The International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program paid for dozens of Portland police to promote community policing in the Southeast Asian country. Smith was selected because he founded and still coordinates a Portland Police Bureau community policing arm called East Portland Involved Citizens (EPIC).
During Smith's free time in Bangladesh, he visited a school for trafficked girls and came away from the experience changed. He left enough money with the director to support two of the girls, and, upon his return to Portland, Smith and his wife, Pat Smith, began raising money.
By 2016, their Asha-Inc. nonprofit was supporting four Bangladeshi schools to the tune of $64,438.
Asha-Inc. even helped to open a school. The idea, Smith said, was to break down the social taboo of associating with people with disabilities.
"(Many Bangladeshis are) superstitious that special needs are contagious, and most people with special needs are ostracized," Smith said.
So Asha-Inc. started a free school in an impoverished region of the country with one catch: 10-11 percent of students would have disabilities.
"They would be the first in their lineage to be able to read and write," Smith said, "but they may be sitting next to a child with Down syndrome or autism."
The Smiths wrote a grant proposal to the Sisters of Providence Mother Gamelin Fund — 13 months of rent, wages and supplies for such a school in that part of the world would cost just $17,000. They got it.
Smith said he hoped a dozen children would sign up the first year and they could build from that.
In fact, by the end of the first year, 60 children were served by the school. This year, there are 132 students in grades 1-3 at the Tauri Foundation All-Inclusive School, and they hope to add fourth and fifth grades in coming years.
No basis for special education
But with success came a problem.
Ashfaque Kabir, director of the Tauri Foundation, started a school in 2003 out of the belief that children like his daughter, a bright girl with cerebral palsy, should have the opportunity to learn. Kabir partnered with the Smiths to open the Tauri Foundation All-Inclusive School in 2014 and manages its daily operations.
He explained to an Asha board member that though his teachers were well qualified and cared deeply about their students, they had no culture of special education nor institutional knowledge of best practices.
They needed a specialist.
Enter Bigham, a Portland teacher who has become a nationally recognized expert on special education since his 2014 selection as Oregon Teacher of the Year.
Bigham said throughout his career he's had to learn and relearn how to adapt his teaching to the vast range of needs his students had, but he was lucky to be able to call up colleagues, research on the internet or rely on his degree. The teachers in Rajshahi have none of that, he says.
"They really don't have much in the line of curriculum. The school systems are not very well funded," Bigham said. He adds that TeachingPartners has agreed to fund a year of monthly online meetings with the teachers there to connect them with other special-education resources and teachers in America.
"I see my visit as not only an opportunity for training, but also to stay in touch with them," he said.
Bigham, who is not being paid for the nearly three-week trip, has been working to connect as many nonprofits as he can to the schools (see sidebar, below). He also is aiming to raise $8,000 on GoFundMe to be able to provide food, supplies and resources to the two schools with special-education students that he will visit.
Smith said $1 has about the same purchasing power in Bangladesh as $10 here.
"It is so easy to be a philanthropist in Bangladesh," Smith said, noting the impact even small donations can have on the lives of people there. "It's just: Why not?"
Asha-Inc. isn't content with what they've started either. In 2018, they hope to raise $100,000 and have dreams to open a school for the Rohingya refugee population in southern Bangladesh. The ethnic group has been persecuted and massacred in Myanmar.
Bigham also will meet with Saima Wazed, the daughter of Bangladesh's prime minister, who is an outspoken advocate for autistic kids. It's possible the Asha-Inc. delegation will get to meet with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself, to discuss how to implement a nationwide system of special education.
"I feel very honored by that," Bigham said. "And I just feel like this is an opportunity to change how kids are seen in this country."
From Portland, with love
Portland special-education teacher Brett Bigham has been working his connections to provide a package of support to Bangladeshi schools when he visits next month.
Shasta Kearns Moore
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