Tyrone Reid, Sunday Gleaner Reporter
Scores of Jamaican children with learning disabilities are being left behind by an inadequate education system that spews out illiterates 26,000 at a time. The system not only fails to identify special-needs children, but expects them to compete without systematic intervention.
The education ministry accepts that too few spaces are available in specialised institutions and that too many children with learning disabilities languish in and slip through the formal system, undetected by successive administrations.
"The ministry is aware that hundreds of students with special needs are waiting to gain access to schools. This has been a problem for years and the ministry is now trying to address it," said Colin Blair, director of communications in the Ministry of Education, in a written response to questions posed by The Sunday Gleaner .
He added: "We cater in segregated public settings to 4,400 students with special needs, (but) there is a space issue."
Sunday Gleaner investigations have revealed that hundreds of suspected cases of children with learning disabilities have been piling up at the state-run Mico University College Child Assessment and Research in Education (CARE) Centre. However, the administrators at Mico CARE failed to respond to our queries by press time.
Forced return to mainstream
After being diagnosed, most of the children with special-education needs are forced to return to the mainstream classroom to endure instruction that is not tailored to meet their needs.
Sunday Gleaner checks have found that close to 1,000 students were waiting to be admitted to the Carberry Court Special School and the Randolph Lopez School of Hope.
Marcia McDonald, principal of the Carberry Court Special School, said 217 students are on its waiting list, while Deborah Manning, social worker at the Jamaican Association on Intellectual Disabilities that manages the School of Hope, revealed that close to 700 students were waiting to access the special-education programme offered by the schools.
Both Carberry Court and the School of Hope are not owned by the State but are government-aided institutions.
McDonald told our news team that her school's waiting list "keeps climbing each year because of referrals we keep getting each year from places like Mico (CARE)". McDonald, who has more than 18 years' experience in the special-education discipline, told our news team that inadequate number of school places for children with special-education needs was an issue when she just entered the field.
"The problem with space has been a long-standing problem. It is something we need to address urgently."
Carberry Court accepts children only by referral, and all of its students have intellectual challenges, the majority of which are of a mild nature. The school has 12 teachers, 12 teacher's assistants, a guidance counsellor and a school nurse. There are about 12 students in each class.
McDonald believes the space issue is untenable. "We have to build more special-education schools, as well as have more special-education classrooms in primary schools ? . Many of them are in regular schools and are not being served," she lamented.
McDonald said a child on the waiting list at Carberry Court usually waits three to four years for a space to open up. "It is true to say that the parents are frustrated because the students are failing in the regular schools."
In its 2008-2009 annual report, the Office of the Children's Advocate (OCA) stated that limited school spaces were available to children with disabilities. The problem had also been highlighted in its 2007-2008 annual report.
"This problem still exists. Several NGOs, which cater to children with disabilities, are doing excellent work in this area, but many are facing financial problems and are reducing their operations," read a section of the OCA report, which also gave commendations to the 3D Projects and Rural Services for Children with Disabilities that were merging their operations in an attempt to reduce administrative costs.
But access to specialised institutions is only a part of the problem.
Information from the Ministry of Education showed that only a third of the teachers in special-education schools had majored in that discipline. Of the approximately 360 teachers, only 113 are specially trained, the ministry stated in a written response to Sunday Gleaner queries.
Trevorlyn McGhan, head of the Special Education Unit at the Mico Practising Primary and Junior High School in Kingston for almost 20 years, joined the passionate pleas for more special-education schools. "You need a lot more. There is a dire need for facilities like this ... . Schools should have been built long ago (because) the need was there," she said of institutions like Carberry Court and School of Hope.
It seems the State has fallen asleep at the wheel, as many industry insiders opine that successive governments have failed to adequately address the plight of students with special-education needs.
"They (the Government) really need to make up their minds to spend money on special education. We need good funding," McGhan said.
Standard needs improvement
She explained that the standard of special education being offered needed to be improved as well. "What we are offering is not special education as is practised in developed countries," she said, pointing out that the construction of buildings to house special-education classes must be accompanied by the required personnel, including but not limited to educational psychologists, as well as occupational and speech therapists.
The special-education unit at the Mico Practising Primary and Junior High School opened its doors in January 1983. It now caters to 47 students, in the eight to 10 age group, in a two-year programme.
The students admitted to this programme are those who show that they can be mainstreamed after this particular intervention. At Mico, the teacher-to-student ratio is 16:1. McGhan believes there should be a transitional class in the schools that would ease the return of the students into the mainstream curriculum. "It is 16:1, and to move into a situation of 40:1 would defeat all that was accomplished," she cautioned.
At the Care Centre, our news team learnt that approximately 600 students referred to the facility were currently on its waiting list.
"We have children who have special needs and when they have to wait so long, it is really heart-rending ... . A lot of the children get left behind," we were told.
Cases dealt with by the CARE Centre are usually referred through various channels, including the Child Development Agency, hospitals, doctors, teachers and guidance counsellors. A parent or guardian may also take a child in to be assessed.
The assessment is done over three days. However, due to the backlog, the first day might be six months removed from the day the child is brought to the CARE Centre; then another five months for the second date, which means the entire process could take up to a year.
The Sunday Gleaner understands that persons who can afford to pay a fee of $7,000 can access the express service offered by the Care centre. This ensures that your child's case is dealt with within a month, outside of the waiting list. Sometimes help is brought in from outside to meet the express deadline. Priority treatment is also given to cases referred to the CARE Centre by the courts. But, those who cannot afford to pay have to wait for months. Right now the CARE Centre is seeing children who were registered in August 2009.