IT may never produce a Fiji Finals gold medal athlete or a rugby union team that will win an age-group competition, Marist Champagnat Institute (MCI) may not even be a headline-grabbing school, but for those intimately involved with the school, it's a success nonetheless.
While Marist Brothers' High School (MBHS) will this week celebrate its 75th anniversary, this Marist Brothers'-run institute, is, in the words of founder Brother Fergus Garret, marking its "half silver jubilee".
As principal of the Ministry of Education-registered vocational institute, Francis Varea explained on Thursday, they are not an achievement-based school. Success is instead based on their students' progress. Not according to any orthodox standards.
Br Fergus says MCI is "the school for those who have nowhere to go". Some students join MCI with a Class One level education. If, after one year, they have progressed to Class Two level, "that is progress", says Br Fergus. Some will get from Class One to Four. Assessment is done every term and always based on what a student is capable of.
Br Fergus further drove the point home saying a student's progress or success is measured relative to what that particular student is capable of. And for some, the baseline is being able to write their name, address and counting their money. Others have moved on to secondary school, Cathedral Secondary School or MBHS. Other success stories have been those who after a bridging programm have moved to Montfort Boys Town or Chevalier Farm. This year MCI is preparing 16 students to be integrated into CSS and MBHS.
Students for the bridging program are also identified and brought to them by Save the Children Fiji and the International Labour Organisation. These are the ones who, for some reason or the other, are not in school. Some have been working. They accept those who they can help. Once in a while they get one or two who have never been to school.
The idea for the school goes back to the 1970s, when government introduced junior secondary schools. There were talks on how to arrange schools in Suva along the lines of classes one to six, and forms one to six. There had even been discussions to move CSS to the MCI site to cater for students with special needs.
Things started again in the 1990s to use the property for those who really needed some help, "ones on the margins, anybody who couldn't cope with secondary school", as Br Fergus describes.
Before opening its doors in 2000, they notified several primary schools in the area. They now have had students from around Fiji, and once, even had a student from Kiribati. Those wanting a place at the school have to fill a form, and then there is an assessment done. This is to determine whether MCI can contribute to that potential student.
As Mr Varea puts it, "there may be no need for us if their literacy and numeracy levels are very high". Both he and Br Fergus are quick to point out that age is another factor. Students deemed too old for the MCI can always apply for a place in the Matua program run at Nabua Secondary School.
MCI started with 16 students - three with severe attention deficit problems. The initial plan had been to have 20 students in a class. Experience has seen them settle for 16. Any more than this, and chances of making an impact are lost.
Br Fergus says some of their students have missed out on mainstream education and maybe even university qualifications not because they "lacked intelligence". He says that over the years, they have received students with "all kinds" of disabilities.
Their classes are small, 16 students, and this number is further broken down so there can be meaningful education, even one-to-one because of students' special needs.
One of the challenges the teachers face is that of students who feel they are not good. Mr Varea says this may be because they have been repeatedly labelled as "no good," ulu kau and as a result have low self-esteem. So it is their duty to remove this barrier to learning as they go about their contribution to national development.
Br Fergus says students in the recent past have had no lack of motivation. He highlights the fact that their second principal, Freddy Miller, who joined MCI in 2002 was wheelchair-bound. There was also a computer teacher who had one leg. This he says showed students they can achieve even with their disabilities.
There are approximately 60 new students each year. Br Fergus estimates 500 students have gone on to other things after attending MCI.
In addition to the move to learn, there are 15-minute meditation sessions every morning, brain massages, eye exercises for those with "TV eyes", writing therapy and listening programs. This is apart from the numeracy and literacy classes. These Mr Varea says, are "to be embraced". There is also an enterprise education program where students are taught to plant/manufacture/produce, sell and save. Some students have left MCI with $200, the proceeds from the enterprise program.
Mr Varea says the beauty of the place that is run according to an annual plan and a three-year strategic plan, is it giving those who have missed out, either because of disability or circumstance, a second chance.
An AusAID volunteer on a one-year placement at MCI says she is mostly involved in the move-to-learn classes. This is because, as she puts it, is most physio-related as it is about physical activity.
She is not directly involved in teaching but may co-teach or just observe. She also has workshops or helps in developing resources.
During her time at the institute, she has helped, through the transfer of skills, other teachers be better equipped in dealing with students with special needs, in particular physical disabilities. The staff members have, in feedback sessions, said they had taken away with them something they did not know before, and are actually implementing it in the classroom.
She highlights the fact that most of the disabilities are "invisible". One cannot tell something is wrong just by looking at the student.
She observes that while MCI is filling a gap in our education system, it is "very obvious" there is definitely a need for training teachers for students with special needs.
While he is very grateful for the help he is getting, Mr Varea says MCI definitely needs more help and understanding from the ministry. A student with special needs he says, is equal to four in mainstream schools, and is asking that (staffing) resources be allocated accordingly.
He highlighted that the ministry has an inclusive education policy. And for this policy to translate into something "tangible", there has to be more attention given to students with special needs. Putting them into mainstream schools is including them physically but does not address their need. Some schools have tried but have been constrained by the cost to hire teachers for these students.
As they finish their 13th year, Br Fergus says the main thing is continuing with what they are doing and raising awareness in the community on the needs of the students in the only special-needs secondary school in the country.
Mr Varea's parting words were to his fellow old boys: "the MCI will gladly accept any assistance to help those who would otherwise not have a chance."