Mon | Mar 27, 2017

Retrofit private schools for special-needs students - Thwaites

Published:Sunday | September 7, 2014 | 9:00 AM
Students are all smiles at the official opening of the School for Therapy Education and Parenting of Children with Multiple Disabilities (STEP) Centre building on Tremaine Road. The STEP centre provides a training resource for the national early childhood and special education needs children. - File

Some of the island's private schools facing shutdown because of the current economic challenges have been challenged by Education Minister Ronald Thwaites to retrofit and capitalise on the growing need for classroom space for children with special needs.

According to Thwaites, there is a need for space for children with special needs, especially at the primary level, and administrators should look to that model to maintain viability.

"There are a fair number of institutions at the early-childhood level, but the need is greatest at the primary level, and what we find is that many children who attend private early-childhood institutions become lost when they go into the public institutions," Thwaites told The Sunday Gleaner.

Filling the gap

"So we are saying, could we fill that gap by giving better service to special-needs children?" Thwaites asked.

At present, there are few private institutions which cater to children with special needs, and even fewer are private schools.

"There is a niche there for special-needs children, with or without partnership from government. This is where we are trying to help the private schools that are in difficulty.

"There are two preparatory schools which have said they are going to close. We don't want any school to have to close. We have said to them, can we partner with you to run a special-needs school, because there is a special gap at the primary level. That's where the needs are," declared Thwaites.

However, retired educator and head of the Special Education & Early Childhood Committee, Polly Bowes-Howell, says while retrofitting private schools could be a long-term goal, urgent accommodation is needed for children with special needs in the interim.

According to Bowes-Howell, every school can make accommodation to house children with special needs.

"Go into some of our high schools, Calabar, Ardenne and Jamaica College, and see how those schools have made accommodation for special-needs children, who all they have is a physical disability. Nothing is wrong with their brains, so why should they be left behind because of a stairs?" argued Bowes-Howell.

Change in behaviour

Accepting that the gap was greatest at the primary and early-childhood levels, Bowes-Howell said the nation has to change its behaviour towards children with special needs because as long as they were able to function they should be allowed to do so.

The veteran educator told The Sunday Gleaner that some teacher-training institutions have failed the children with special needs.

"Go to Cayman and the Bahamas and you will see special-needs teachers trained at Mico (University College). We do not value our children and our trained specialists and so they go away," stated Bowes-Howell.

While lauding Thwaites for his attention to special and early childhood education, Bowes-Howell charged that Jamaica is failing the children with special needs because they are being allowed to feel that a simple disability means they are worthless.

At present, the ministry pays the fees for several children with special needs in private primary system. There is no standard fee for each child with special needs, but fees are applied according to the needs of the child.

In one school, the fees recently moved from $74,000 to $104,000 annually for each special-needs child on roll.