Fr Ed O’Connell writes about the largest special needs school in Peru, which the Columbans have been involved in for almost 50 years, and which has been threatened with closure by the Ministry for Education’s decision to put a halt to funding.
The Special Needs School Manuel Duato was founded in 1976 by two diocesan volunteers from England, Fr Austin Garvey from Westminster Archdiocese and Fr Kevin McHugh from Arundel and Brighton Diocese. The school was built on Columban land on the north side of Lima, beside the Columban Centre House. When the two diocesan priests returned home, the Columban Director then took over the role of President of the school.
This year the Manuel Duato school celebrates 47 years of educational service to one of the most vulnerable sectors of Peruvian society: children, adolescents, youth and adults with special educational needs and with moderate and severe mental disabilities.
My own association with Manuel Duato School began in 2001 when, on becoming Regional Director of the Columbans in Peru, I also became the Chair of the Board of Governors of the school. I happily continued to do this job until 2022, when in preparation for my return to England, I handed over the Chair to Alicio Dominguez, who had recently retired as headmaster after 23 years.
His knowledge of the teachers, parents, students and local educational authority was second to none. Alicio is well known to the Columbans, having contributed to formation programmes in our parishes and in our Mission Formation Centre for the best part of 40 years. The deputy head teacher Carmen Escudero who has been in that role for 20 years took over the role of head teacher.
For over 40 years the Manuel Duato School has had a good relationship with the Ministry of Education. The school is classed as a public school run privately, like a parish school with State support for the payment of teachers, assistant teachers, psychologists, therapists, and social workers, in all 71 employees. Every three years this agreement with the Ministry of Education has to be renewed.
This year, in July, we got a big shock as the local branch of the Education Authority informed us that the agreement would not be renewed for 2024 and thereafter. This would mean the staff would not be paid by the State and the school would have to close. The decision was appealed by us but was turned down by the local education authority. That was not a surprise as they were the ones who announced the decision to remove the funding. Now an appeal has gone into the Ministry of Education at regional level.
We are not sure why this has happened. There have been changes in the Ministry of Education and the National Board for Disabled People, so maybe people who should know better are not aware of the relationship with Manuel Duato School, which is the largest special needs school in the country and has a fine reputation. In fact the Ministry of Education sends teachers and headteachers to the school to learn from us.
Hopefully the appeal to the regional authorities will work. We are in contact through our local diocese and that of the Archdiocese of Lima with people in the Ministry at a high level to make them aware of the situation. The staff are very worried as they are not sure what will happen to them in 2024. Will they be reassigned to other schools and what happens with their students?
The parents have written to their local mayors, to the Ministry of Education and the National Board for Disabled People, to explain that their moderately and severely challenged children will not be able to go to what are termed ‘normal’ schools and as such will be left abandoned.
In the event that the Regional Education Authority ratifies the decision of the Local Education Authority then we will begin a judicial process, with the help of the State Human Rights Ombudsperson, requesting protection for the school until the final ruling is made in the judicial process. This could last several years. It is all very disconcerting and unsettling for everyone.
A total of 531 students attended Manuel Duarto this year, including 36 in the Friends’ Club (for over 18-year-olds) and 33 in Training and Job Placement. The students attend either in the morning or the afternoon. Among them are 226 with autism; 52 with hearing difficulties; 52 with cerebral palsy; 86 with Down Syndrome; 78 with severe mental difficulties and 32 with multiple disabilities.
From Manuel Duato we also manage the Inclusion Service for 412 students in 79 local public Institutions covering all levels of education from kindergarten up to university and work placements, where they are supervised in their studies and work situations. Overall, we assist a total of 943 students with disabilities.
Our mission is to work with the family of the student with special educational needs so that they assume co-responsibility in the life of their son or daughter and guarantee better conditions in their family environment, neighbourhood and in the community where they live, to ensure social inclusion.
We provide face-to-face training by specialists to help parents learn how to communicate with their child in sign language or comprehension gestures, as well as working on setting limits, on disruptive behaviours, and autonomy.
The State pays 71 employees: made up of teachers, assistant teachers, psychologists, therapists, and a social worker.
The administrative staff: director, cleaning staff, as well as the school manager are paid by the Board of Governors, the Fe y Esperanza Civil Association. The Association also covers the operating costs of the Manuel Duato Friends’ Club with the payment of three teachers.
Fr Ed O’Connell was ordained in 1973 and recently returned to Britain from Peru.
UPDATE ON MANUEL DUATO SCHOOL
Since this article was published in the December issue of the Far East magazine, the Ministry of Education, Lima level, has declared the decision of the local education authority null and void.
“This a tremendous relief,” Fr Ed O’Connell told Columbans.ie
This photo of Alicio Dominguez (President of Fe y Esperanza) and Carmen Escudero (Head Teacher of Manuel Duato) shows them with a letter from the Ministry of Education which criticises the local officials “who acted in bad faith to bring forward their case.”
This means that the Ministry of Education will carry on paying the staff of 72 – teachers, auxiliary teachers and other professionals.
The new agreement is for three years, starting in 2024. It is between Fe y Esperanza (Board of the Governors of Manuel Duato) but has yet to be signed.
According to Fr Ed, “It is in process, and we are pushing that the Ministry also covers the salaries of the part-time secretary and the caretaker and cleaner. Also we are pushing that the Ministry continues to pay the water bill. We are not sure when we will have the definitive answer and overall outcome to the agreement.”
Please help Fr Ed O’Connell and the Manuel Duato school in Lima by donating online here: https://columbans.ie/donate/ Alternatively, you can send a cheque payable to ‘Columban Missionaries’ to the Far East Office, Dalgan Park, Navan, Co Meath C15 AY2Y