Ten years ago, evangelicals in Jordan helped pioneer inclusive education for students with disabilities. A decade later the minister of education patronized their commencement event.

Founded in 2014, Alliance Academy Jordan (AAJ), owned by the local Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) church, began with 54 students in kindergarten through second grade. Adding a grade level each year, its first graduating class of two students completes a now 350-student body—17 of which have disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy to autism and ADHD.

Another 31 have different levels of learning disabilities that require special class support and attention. Over the years, AAJ has enrolled 71 such students altogether.

It is a drop in the bucket.

In 2017, the Jordanian government launched a 10-year plan for nationwide inclusive education. AAJ was on the initial advisory committee of the Higher Council for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that prepared it.

American funding is helping Jordan meet its goal of 30 public inclusive schools in its major cities by 2025, mandating professional development for all. Another 30 schools are planned for less-developed areas after that.

A 2020 study found that only 19 percent of teachers in Jordan were trained appropriately for special needs education. And while 11 percent of youth above the age of 5 have some sort of disability, 79 percent receive no form of schooling at all.

Last year the Higher Council selected AAJ as one of six members to form a public-private school association to share expertise and help in implementation. With an average class size of 17, AAJ is uniquely positioned to serve special needs students as it aids the national endeavor toward their social integration.

And beginning in 2025, the school plans to offer an American diploma.

CT spoke with AAJ general director Salam Madanat about challenges faced by the school, its diversity beyond disability, and how it maintains a Christian vision.

How did you come to your position?

I was happy in retirement at the time, volunteering in ministry through my church. But in 2019, the CMA asked me to join the AAJ board of trustees, due to my background with the Alliance church and in management and human resources with the Arab Bank. Three years later I was tasked to lead the search for a new school director. The position had been held by an American from the CMA mission since inception, but we were looking to transition to Jordanian leadership.

But as the search tarried, my husband whispered: I think you should do it. I didn’t want to wake at 6 a.m. every day and carry such a heavy weight. But as others shared similar encouragement at the school and in the church, I prayed and God assured me: This is my work, I’m responsible for it.

Article continues below

I am a devout Christian, so I knew he just wanted me to obey. All I could do is place my two copper coins into his hands, trusting him for what I could not see (Luke 21:1–4). But I am confident AAJ was founded by the will of God for a purpose, and it will remain so.

What is this purpose?

The goal was to provide affordable education for all children—not just the rich, smart, or able—and show the love of God through this ministry. Many good schools in Jordan have different goals, as education can be a lucrative business. They compete to offer the best facilities and attract the smartest kids, and some will even expel students if their marks threaten to bring down the school grade point average.

We want our children to receive excellent education. We offer the British educational system and soon will add the American. But we located in a lower middle-class neighborhood in Amman and connected a church to the project. Our fees were very affordable for a long time as the CMA church in America helped support us, but with COVID the financial challenges began to grow. We are still much more affordable than other private schools but about on par with Christians schools.

The difficulty comes especially with our commitment to inclusive education.

Where did this vision originate?

It was the product of our original purpose, as a way to serve this neglected part of society and reach their families with the love of God. And a few years later, it fit well within Jordan’s 10-year plan for inclusive education. We were visited by His Royal Highness Prince Mired Bin Ra’ad, the president of the Higher Council for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and several other officials. They spoke of us as a model school and invited us to serve with them.

AAJ was in the news everywhere.

The attention was nice, but not without cost. Now we have a hard time attracting regular students as some families say, “That school is for the disabled; I don’t want to put my children there.” We aim to cap—but keep—their percentage at 10 percent of class size, consistent with international norms. Other schools that enroll students with disabilities tend to be much more limited in scale.

Article continues below

Society is still not ready for inclusivity, but our AAJ parents love it. They say our school builds character in how their children are learning to accept diversity.

How else is diversity nurtured?

Jordan is a haven for refugees, from Syria and Iraq in particular, and some of their children are enrolled in the school. We have an additional 10 other nationalities represented, including Palestinian, Egyptian, Lebanese, American, Australian, Brazilian, Chilean, South Korean, and Chinese.

Several years ago we instituted a Chinese language course up through eighth grade. There are several Chinese projects in Jordan, and our country will need to have people able to interact with China as its influence grows in the world. We feature a yearly China Day with food, art, and clothing.

And from the beginning, we have had a slight majority of Christian students,. Nearly all other schools, including Christian schools, reflect society and its predominant Muslim majority. Christians are less than 2 percent of the Jordanian population, but a majority Christian student body allows an atmosphere that accepts a Christian spirit. And within it we communicate that while we are all different, God loves us the same.

How else do you promote a Christian spirit?

As administrators, we start every day with prayer for our students, staff, and the leadership of our nation. Students attend a morning assembly with a short devotion about biblical life values, followed by a prayer. Once a week every class has a session called Values to Grow, where we teach life lessons drawn from our faith. For parents, every two weeks we nurture a moms group through the Parent-Teacher Association, where we bring in professional experts to speak about parenting, self-care, and family issues.

And every year we celebrate Christmas and Easter.

All this is run through our life development department, which works with students, teachers, parents, and the community to show people the love of God and reach out to them in their needs, extending the help that we can. And as people notice the love of God and the spirit of service, many ask questions and want to know more.

We maintain an open environment, and besides the Christian religion class, we provide the mandatory Islamic religion classes according to the government curriculum, based on the religious background of each student. We want everyone to fit into our family atmosphere.

How does this work in the special needs department?

One key feature is that, unlike many inclusive schools, we hire the shadow teachers ourselves. But we call them “learning aides,” as we want them to be a part of the AAJ family and grow professionally within their role. This increases our costs substantially, as we become responsible to pay into their benefits and social security package. (Other schools tell the parents to find these accompanying teachers on their own.)

Article continues below

As such they fit fully into our mission and value system with a heart to serve.

We also provide for speech and occupational therapy with early intervention sessions at the school, as opposed to outside specialized centers. These services used to be free, but with our costs rising we have recently asked parents to pay a still deeply discounted rate, as well as part of the salary of the learning aides.

Parents react differently to the costs, but many accept with a grateful heart.

What does your ideal graduating student look like?

Much like our first two graduates, Allissar and Hayel, who embody our values.

AAJ was founded upon the three R’s: responsibility, respect, and relationships. We are committed to excellence in education so that we produce lifelong learners and responsible citizens who serve their society. And we create a community that values diversity, promotes integrity, and extends grace.

But these relationships are forged through the idea that since God loves us, we love others. Self-confidence follows as everyone feels valued. We teach the students to be faithful in their work, as if they are serving God. And then in service to people we emphasize loyalty to the family, country, and most importantly to God.

If our children graduate with these values, they will contribute much to Jordan.