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Tying shoes, forging new ties Exchange program: A principal from West Africa visits a Millersville school for special needs children.


For Thierno Cisse, Ruth P. Eason School is a different world.

The high school principal from West Africa had never set foot inside a school for special needs students until last week when he came to Eason as part of a teacher exchange program.

Now he is learning about a different kind of education, where success is sometimes measured in shoes being tied and colors recognized.

Mr. Cisse heads Lycee Mixte Maurice delafosse, a high school in Dakar, Senegal, with 3,000 students.

He is at the Millersville school as part of a six-week Fulbright Teacher's Exchange Program that he and Eason Principal Jack R. Malloy are participating in. The program exposes participants to the culture and educational system of another country.

At Eason, one-tenth the size of his own school, Mr. Cisse is getting his first glimpse of what life for special needs children is like.

"Terry, Terry. Come here. Tie up your shoes," Mr. Cisse told Terry Jones, 12, who spun around as he ran back to his seat to look at the tall imposing figure.

After Mr. Malloy finished tying Terry's gym shoes, Mr. Cisse asked him, "Why can't he do that?"

Mr. Malloy explained that tying a shoe can be a big challenge for children with special needs who have problems with hand-eye coordination.

Though there are schools in Dakar for deaf and blind students, there are few schools for children with other disabilities. They often wind up wandering the streets of Dakar, begging for money, Mr. Cisse said.

When he travels to Senegal, Mr. Malloy said, he expects to be surprised by classes with 50 or more students who are all well-behaved.

"I don't expect to see children like I have in school at all over there," said Mr. Malloy, who will visit Mr. Cisse in April.

Mr. Malloy doesn't speak French, the language of Senegal, but said he has been studying hard since he met his colleague.

Mr. Cisse arrived here Feb. 4 after a 12-hour flight from Dakar and is staying with the Malloys at their Pasadena home. The two men have much in common: Both are 54, married, have children and been principals for at least a decade.

The visiting principal has a lot to cram into six weeks. His schedule is full of appointments to visit private and public schools and some colleges. Glen Burnie High School wants Mr. Cisse to visit its French class.

Mr. Cisse has already eaten his first Maryland crab cake at a tavern in Federal Hill. He has taken in the sights of Baltimore's Inner Harbor and visited the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

The only thing he has passed on is the "chicken," a dance Ruth P. Eason students did at a school dance Friday. Mention of it makes him laugh and shake his head.

The children at Ruth P. Eason have taken to Mr. Cisse. They run up to hug him or reach out and grab his hands from their wheelchairs when he walks the halls, visits their classrooms or goes to the cafeteria. Mr. Cisse remembers the names of the children he has met.

One of the things that has perplexed Mr. Cisse about American schools is what he considers a small number of boys in classes.

At his school in Dakar, boys outnumber girls more than two to one because the girls sometimes must stay home to help out or they marry early, Mr. Cisse said.

A few years ago, Mr. Cisse started teaching himself English by reading and by watching television, which depicts American schools as violent. Through his visits, Mr. Cisse said he hopes to learn if that image meshes with reality.

Already he has watched students learn words using computers and seen staff members use faxes and copy machines, equipment rarely found in Senegal classrooms.

Mr. Cisse is keeping a journal of his American experiences to write a report when he returns home.

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