Bernadine Anderson is the founder and director of La Petite Fleur schools in Sri Lanka. Fondly known as Aunty Bernie by children, staff, and parents alike, she is a passionate educationist and an advocate of social justice. To the inclusive La Petite Fleur schools, children with special needs are exceptional learners. In this interview, Bernadine talks about the significance of inclusive education, the unique needs-based curriculum at the school, and creating the same rights towards educational opportunities for all children alike.
By January 2018, you will have 25 years of experience in the field of children’s education in Sri Lanka, since the first La Petite Fleur House of Children opened in Ratmalana. How did this journey begin for you?
It is my personal story. I am the daughter of an Air Force Officer. During my childhood, we moved with our father wherever he was posted. I followed him to places like Diyathalawa, China Bay, and Negombo. In these places, I didn’t have an early education. I remember, in China Bay, we had to go to school in a boat. We went to school when the boat was available. I think with my keen sense of social justice, even then, I made up my mind that there had to be a better way than this. What I learned, I did around the dinner table, good library, and enjoyed my childhood outdoors.
I suppose I held on to the dream till I was given the opportunity. In the meantime, I made sure that I qualified for it. I had opportunities to live and work in the States and in a few other countries. the experience and learning gave me a wide base on which to create a philosophy, which is now the La Petite Fleur philosophy. When I started in Ratmalana, it was basically to fill a need that I felt at that time was all Colombo-based. I started the school in Ratmalana, it was obvious that the need was acute even outside of Colombo. There was no big business plan. It kind of evolved into what we are today.
How did you develop the school in Ratmalana and branch out to Dehiwala?
My girls were born in the States and I brought them back here for ten years of their early education because I love Sri Lanka and wanted them to have a great childhood experience. At that time, a very dear friend of mine in the States wanted company for her dad who lived alone. I started a small school in her home. Soon we had outgrown the premises and Fr. Anura offered us the church hall at St. Jospeh’s Parish, Ratmalana. So, it was something that evolved around us. La Petite Fleur parents began to suggest for primary and secondary education. Since I had this model at my school in the States, the LPF Academy was planned on that system, ten years ago. We had great support from the parents who believed in our system.
The curriculum in the school is quite unique in the sense that it is adaptable to the specific needs of each child and, in particular, special needs children are not separated from the others. Could you explain the significance of having an inclusive whole school concept about educating young children?
I don’t cater to them in a different manner. Which I think is the real success at La Petite Fleur. All teachers are trained in this concept added to their academic qualifications. The inclusive integrated learning environment is the very culture of the school which permeates into all aspects of curriculum and extra-curricular activities. Students, teachers and parents are well informed of this and choosen with this understanding. As you saw, they integrate so well. The problem is when we put a stigma on them and try to treat them differently. The moment you don’t, you see the positive in them. The La Petite philosophy is about embracing them and having the right people to do the job – you can’t be casual about who works with them. There is not a day that I don’t touch base with them. That’s why we are also, by choice, a small school.
We are a community-based school rather than a school divided into grades. And for those communities to be strong and supportive, there are certain criteria that must be met. For example, at what point the child must be integrated and the support system in place. The miracle happens when the children interact with each other and experience the changes themselves.
What does it mean, in the Sri Lankan context, for parents when they have a child with special needs?
Ironically having worked with exceptional children both here and abroad, the basic parental reaction is very similar – denial followed by competent diagnosis and looking for the best services available. The Sri Lankan context changes in the services that are available. I believe firmly in early intervention. Professional help across in this area is almost nonexistent other than at Lady Ridgeway hospital that provides a very good service at no cost. A framework established under national policy offering vital services including home visits providing the child with the necessary therapy is a basic need, at least till the child is of school-going age. In our context, I find this more as the privilege of a few rather than a right of all. A beautiful advantage that I see in the Sri Lankan context is the support and love from extended family, especially grandparents. This is a blessing that allows most parents the opportunity to even pursue regular occupations, ensuring the children have the consistent care that is so important to them.
Is it difficult to integrate children with special needs into our society with the cultural norms that persist about them?
In the 4 years that I have been back more permanently, I do feel there is more awareness especially among the younger generation.
As I said before, at La Petite Fleur it is a way of life. However, we are quite frequently referred to as a school for “Special Needs” by many who choose not to understand the concept or see the benefit children gain from the inclusivity. For example, on two occasions we had to change our swimming schedule because the team that came before us had claimed that the students were “afraid” of our children.
I must admit that I was not prepared for the strong bias I found while working in our rural schools. Initially we never knew of the need, but after a workshop conducted for speech delay, we found many spectrums of differently abled children. The lack of trained teachers, basic parent awareness, and education had led to serious disadvantages for the child. We had parents threatening to remove their own children from our programme if we considered inclusivity. Pregnant or newly married teachers believe that working with these children could influence their pregnancies. It remains a challenge especially when you hear of children being chained, kept indoors or mothers who attempt suicide because they believe that bad karma causes down syndrome.
I do believe that, it is the lack of awareness and knowledge of the subject that is the real issue, because our culture is naturally generous and spiritually sensitive. We need national policy that will ensure the right to education for the differently abled, offering teachers specialized training opportunity while discouraging discriminatory practices.
Could you elaborate on Bridge2Peace, the not-for-profit organization that you founded to provide Montessori education to underprivileged children?
Bridge to Peace – the term itself was coined by Mahatma Gandhi, a class mentor at LPF and definite influence in my life. The story has it, when he came to meet Doctor Montessori in India he expressed that if peace was ever to be realized between India and Pakistan, the children would have to be that bridge to peace. The concept itself was already in my heart. It was realized on the night of the tsunami in 2004. We were at a Christmas dinner in New York when we heard of the catastrophe. My plan was to return to Sri Lanka for 5 years with a commitment of working with early education in the rural sector. Talking to my family and friends, however, convinced me that the time to return home was now. With the complete support of my family and the parents of my school in Connecticut, I returned with a commitment of 10,000 dollars, which was blessed as the start of what today is spread across the country. Lunugamvehera then was populated by the poorest of the poor. Eleven years ago, it was just jungle. The land that I was given was covered in shrubs. My daughters came down and they drove the backhoes. Somehow, the 10,000 dollars was blessed.
Today we have schools that really are beacons of hope for commitment to peace through education. If you think the building that we have here is excellent, that one in Lunugamvehera was built in a specially prepared environment with the same culture and calendar of our schools in Colombo. None of the schools out of Colombo get treated differently. The concept that drives me is that I am committed to peace in our country. And that peace has to start with the child. For my Master’s, in the States, I designed a peace curriculum. So, here, too, we actually have a peace curriculum that is taught in all our schools. We have peace tables. The children go to the peace table and learn about how to resolve their conflicts by themselves. The curriculum is simple and is used through out the schools.
Something that I noticed when I entered the school is that it is full of children’s voices and they are moving around freely. I don’t remember my school education being like that. We were mostly controlled and did not communicate like this. How do you accommodate this sort of a curriculum that is built on the concept of communities rather than grades, which is different from the mainstream education systems?
I think it is all in the culture and in the system. We have no list of rules; we have expectations instead. I think that’s the first thing. Some schools have a rule book which even includes when children must drink water. I think children don’t need lots of rules. They are very smart and very logical. I think it is when you try to go against that grain and swim upstream that you get tired.
They have just two simple rules, which is Respect yourself and Respect the other. If you walk around and ask about rules in this school, the younger ones will say they don’t have rules. As they move up they realize that a lot of moral is encapsulated in those two rules. By the time they reach the A/L, they have realized that these two rules actually encompass quite a few things about life. If they are late, there is no punishment, we talk to them and make them understand, because more often than not, it is not the child’s fault. They are late because the parent was late or because of the traffic. So, we work around those things. I have found that with this approach the child takes ownership of the problem. They make definite and consistent changes.
We don’t have timetables. We have agendas. All the way up to about year 4, if they want to do Math first and English later, they can do it. If I see that some children need extra help, they are given that extra teacher to support them through the program. It is a lot of hands-on work. Literally, I think the deal with us is we change if something is not working for the child. So, it is very demanding. There is a lot of spontaneity but it is not ad hoc.
Another thing that I hold very sacred is the fact that all of us are reflective practitioners. I really drive that point home with the teachers. It is not only looking ahead but looking behind, changing and making sure that you are open to that change. I think that brings out quality teachers. The students get an intrinsic experience from the teacher. That creates this culture and the aura that you find here. Our parents often speak about students who seem to have trouble identifying where does home end and where does school start. I think it is in our policy of unconditional love – there is no judgment among our faculty and staff. There are no competitions at La Petite Fleur. Even the sports meet is called the “The Friendship Games”. They each excel at their best. Healthy competition within the houses with equal amount of support and goodwill. The secret is in competing with yourself and improving yourself.
Could you give some examples of success stories of ‘exceptional leaners’ at the schools?
Many of the children whom you met today, had very difficult beginnings. All they needed was a safe and secure environment for them to thrive in. Children who had no language, today lead assembly in prayer, not just for an exam they do. There is a child who had such a fear of water he could not even have a shower. His mother just sent me pictures of him diving under water in the Maldives. And he is today a competent swimmer. That is not just about acquiring basics like being able to sit at a table and eat but also about acquiring some important life skills. It really permeates into the soul of the child. It is about offering that unconditional love. They don’t have to fit into any mould.
Are we aware of their potential and capabilities as a society?
We need more people like you: what you are doing is taking the message out. As a policy, we don’t advertise. I don’t market La Petite Fleur at all. We believe only in word of mouth. In fact, most of our admissions are merely based on parent recommendations. I think our parent body is our best advocate. A mother of one of our students have even started a center that caters to children who leave intervention. She is doing very well and this is purely influenced by her experience with us and seeing the change in her own child. If we learn to work together like that and support each other in a like-minded manner, that would really be the way to go.
Do we need better policies in place in terms of special needs education?
Definitely. About five years ago, when I returned to Sri Lanka, I wrote to the government. I offered my services free to support an early intervention programme in the outstation. Early awareness is so critical. If you identify issues as early as possible, it is crucial. In my line of discussion with parents, when I ask them what happened at birth and what happened after, very often you find that they haven’t noticed anything till the child was 2-3 years of age. That is where it goes wrong. We need to have a pediatrician in the delivery room who could identify minor problems right there. I think that is a pretty critical area that we need to be looking into. If the government can have a specialized program in addressing this, definitely, it would help. I am told that there is a policy where schools are supposed to take in children with special needs. But very often this unit is tucked away at the back of the school. Training programmes and a good salary structure for teachers who work in this area need to have a policy attached to it.
What does it feel like to be Auntie Bernie for thousands of children?
I don’t know how that got coined but even the parents call me Auntie Bernie. It’s a good feeling. I believe it creates a sense of safety, security and a sense of accessibility to the children. Being Aunty Bernie demands that I know each child personally and treat each of them as they are my own. And I have my daughter’s permission to say this.
Date of Interview: 13 September 2017
Interviewer and photographs: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage