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Friday 9th September 2011

 By ©Joanne C. Hillhouse

Parenting, and, for that matter, teaching special needs children comes with unique challenges. A group of parents recently announced their intention to meet this challenge head-on. They’re exploring the possibility of starting their own programme and, as such, are reaching out for assistance from the public and the Ministry of Education, with whom they have a meeting this week.
Getting a new programme going just as the new school year gets going is a tall order. But they feel they’ve run out of options after being recently informed by CCSET International Academy of plans to mainstream their children.
“We realize it’s going to be a big challenge” said Salma Crump whose son attended the school, adding, “I have to try to be as optimistic as possible. I have to keep that hope. If I lose it I’m giving up everything. I just have to hope that people will start taking this a bit more seriously.”
By this, she’s referring to the limited educational options, public or private, available to special needs children in Antigua and Barbuda.
CCSET for the past year was the only private special needs programme of its kind. The bill was hefty and it wasn’t perfect but the parents who bought-in felt it was worth it. CCSET principal Teresa Emanuel said this of the programme: “The class we had was truly amazing, almost one on one attention and a full, varied program with great teachers and new ways of reaching children that had not been reached before. CCSET wanted to do the integration over a period of time but when the end of August was reached and enrollment could not justify the class, a hard decision had to be made.”
With the new plan, requiring their children to be in regular classes with a class assistant for whom they would have to pay, the parents, however, feel the bill has become too high. “I can’t be paying school fees, plus an assistant…that’s just too much,” said Diane Black-Layne whose daughter attends the school. Caroline Hopton who has two boys at the school said of the additional cost, “That is out of the question.”
Emanuel did note that not all parents were affected and that those affected were given the option of providing a budget, “and we would work with them to help secure an assistant if needed.”
The parents, who received notice of the change via email shortly before the start of the new school year, expressed concern, though, about lack of consultation and late notice. Carol-Jean George whose daughter attends the school said while there’d been some previous talk of integration there was nothing concrete before the recent email. “I understand that it’s expensive,” Black-Layne said, “but I think the changes should have been more transparent and open.”
Emanuel acknowledged that, for more than one reason, notice was given late and via email; but said, “Parents were contacted …and all were given the chance to work with us on a modified IEP [Individualized Education Programme] and to express their concerns.”
The parents have since taken to the airwaves to do just that. Among those concerns, apart from money and timing, is mainstreaming. Hopton said one of her boys is “non verbal, unable to communicate effectively (and has) receptive language problems.” She doesn’t think mainstreaming is an option for him. Besides, she added, “when you mainstream kids, it has to be done with a plan specific to that child’s needs.” George added, “Mainstreaming to some extent is good, but if it’s going to be for an entire school day, it’s not going to work.”
Plus, “You can’t mainstream some of these kids…it isn’t the answer for every single child,” insisted Crump, who earlier this summer launched the group, ABILITY, which has been lobbying government to do more for special needs children.
Speaking to the concerns about mainstreaming, Emanuel said, “yes, some children may be difficult to mainstream…(but) an integration plan has been prepared for each child, and we will be going over this with the parents who are enrolled in the program.”
As explained though, some of the parents are already looking elsewhere. “Right now, our focus is to get a programme of our own going,” said Crump.
“I’m hoping the government will assist us in any way they can,” said Hopton, listing a place, utilities, resources and trained teachers among their immediate needs. “If there’s anybody with special training in this area, we’d like to know right away,” Black-Layne said, indicating that they’re especially hopeful of government assistance with respect to teachers. The concerned parents can be contacted via 770-5600/5604 and 725-6079.
Hopton stressed, “There are no options right now and that’s why we feel we’ve been left high and dry with no notice.” Adele School, the lone public option, is said Crump “bursting at the seams” and under-resourced. “Adding to Adele would just exacerbate the problem,” Crump said, “There is a need for more.” On this point Emanuel agrees with the parents. She said, “The problem is that Antigua needs something in place to serve these children.”


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