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Parents of special needs children struggling in the education system

Published:Tuesday | February 7, 2023 | 10:36 AM

Some children with learning disabilities and behavioural challenges require a shadow to attend school. They are compensated by the Ministry of Education. However, the fees are so low that a large number of them have opted to find other jobs. This has left parents struggling to balance work as well as filling in at school with their children. Some are finding it hard to make ends meet.

Shadow shortage

Parents sacrificing jobs, risk burnout to help special needs children in school

Jamaica Gleaner/5 Feb 2023/Judana Murphy 

ROXANNA BOGLE’S 12-year-old autistic son missed a week of school in January because his shadow resigned a day before the start of the new academic term.

Shadows provide one-on-one support in classrooms to hundreds of special needs students across Jamaica, assisting them with their personal care and safety and in developing their independence as well as their academic, social and behavioural skills.

Unable to retain the services of a shadow who would be paid by the Government, Bogle now juggles a night-shift job as a chef with shadowing her son from 8 a.m. to 3 pm on weekdays.

When she leaves her job at 6 a.m., she returns home with just enough time to prepare herself and her son for school.

They do not get home until about 5 pm and then Bogle has just a few hours to rest before it is time to clock into work again.

“I am sleeping less and I am not managing well, but it’s what I have to do because the shadow salary is too small to survive on,” she said of her taxing routine.

Bogle recalled that while her son was attending basic school, his teacher became concerned that he was withdrawn.

“He was not speaking as much as he used to and when they asked him a question, he did not answer and he wasn’t responding to his name again. He was diagnosed with severe autism when he was around three years old,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.

Bogle shared that her son has changed schools several times and she decided to enrol him at Genesis Academy in Kingston last September because students are facilitated up to age 21 and usually graduate with a skill.

A psycho-educational report and/or medical report is done and reviewed in order to decide whether a student requires a shadow.

Bogle’s son’s enrolment assessment showed that he was performing below the grade one level and would require a shadow.

“After the shadow resigned, I called his teacher and told her and I called the supervisor for the shadows as well. He did not go to school for one week because he didn’t have a shadow. The principal called me and told me that they are going to monitor him for a week and see if he can function without a shadow. For that week, they told me that because of his behaviour and tantrums, he definitely needs a shadow, and they were also going to change his class because he had advanced,” she recounted.

Bogle told The Sunday Gleaner that she advertised the job on multiple social media platforms and received a lot of responses from interested persons, “but when they hear what the ministry is paying, nobody wants the job.

“To be honest, I wouldn’t want that for myself, but it’s my child, so I have to do it,” she said, revealing that the education ministry pays shadows a pre-tax salary of $40,000 monthly.

‘They see the necessity of having their children at school, and so out of the love for their children, they take up the role. It’s really sacrificial. A lot of them consider if they will be able to survive financially if they give up their job and put their child’s needs first.’

“I don’t know how they expect people to survive on such a small amount of money when they have to find bus fare and lunch daily,” she lamented.

At school, Bogle assists her son in the bathroom, guides him with counting and colouring, helps him to stay focused, and establishes limits.

“He will play with a toy and when it is time to do classwork, he doesn’t want to put away the toy,” she shared.

It has been an arduous task, but Bogle is determined to see her child succeed, as she appeals for more government support for special needs children.

Jamaica’s Special Education Policy is in the draft stage and has been awaiting the final stages of approval at the Cabinet level since 2018.

The policy is expected to promote awareness of students’ right to quality education, outline how children will be placed, how they will gain access to schools, and detail provisions that should be available for them, including

qualified staff and the required student-teacher ratio.

Genesis Academy Principal Stacey-Ann Newman told The Sunday Gleaner that there are 30 students at the South Camp Roadbased school who need shadows and 10 are yet to be matched.

When asked how the institution facilitates those students, she explained that depending on the severity of the disability or behaviour of the child, assistant teachers and other caregivers will assist.

“If this is not possible, then the parent or family member is allowed to be the child’s caregiver while waiting. Worst-case scenario, the child is not allowed to come to school until a caregiver is found,” Newman said, noting that there is a shortage of shadows, primarily males.

She outlined that salary, workload, burnout, inadequate resources and unrealistic expectations are among the main complaints made by shadows.

Newman said that the school supports the process by helping with recommendations, recruitment and hosting orientation and training sessions.

But the shortage of shadows is not unique to Genesis Academy as Obistan Kinder Prep Principal Dr Andre Dyer revealed that six students at his institution have been without shadows for over a year.

“The teachers have just been using differentiation and different techniques to keep them involved and included in activities, but really and truly, they need shadows but shadows are hard to come by,” he said.

The principal detailed that many parents can’t afford the monthly fees quoted by some shadows.

Dyer explained that the fees vary based on the duties and length of engagement – a couple of hours per day at home, a full schoolday, or a full schoolday plus homework assistance.

Further, he said a shadow can be shared between two students depending on the needs of each child.

In the absence of shadows, Dyer said the school has a portal where additional activities can be accessed at home.

“It pretty much boils down to what the family can afford and that’s if they are in the private system. If they are in the public system, it’s how many students are actually assigned to the shadow if the school has a shadow. You have shadows who leave because they end up being assigned 20 students, which defeats the purpose,” Dyer disclosed.

Sunday Gleaner checks at the Randolph Lopez School of Hope and the Lister Mair Gilby High School for the Deaf revealed that all students who require shadows in those institutions have been assigned one.

Meanwhile, at Hope Valley Experimental School, 10 students have secured the support of a shadow, but the process was not without hiccups.

“A number of them (shadows) were reluctant to take on the job. Some of them were doing their hustling and they said that it was better for them to continue to do the hustling because what they are earning is just for bus fare and lunch money,” Principal Anthony Grant told The Sunday Gleaner.

He added that a few of the shadows are the parents of the students as jobseekers are unwilling to take up the of fer.

“They see the necessity of having their children at school, and so out of the love for their children, they take up the role. It’s really sacrificial. A lot of them consider if they will be able to survive financially if they give up their job and put their child’s needs first,” Grant shared.

The Ministry of Education’s Special Education Unit told The Sunday Gleaner that 315 shadows are deployed across Jamaica – 37 at the early childhood level, 212 at the primary level, 64 in secondary schools, and two at the tertiary level.

In the 2021-2022 academic year, there were 234 shadows, 63 of whom exited the programme.

Of that number, 19 were resignations.

The Special Education Unit explained that resignations or discontinuation of service usually occur when a student becomes independent or has matriculated to another institution, while some find “more established jobs” or leave to further their studies in order to return to the classroom.

“Parents expect the shadow to work beyond established work hours and that contravenes the terms and stipulations of the contract,” the unit said in an emailed response to queries.

The Sunday Gleaner also enquired about the salary, given the concerns raised about it unattractiveness.

“The current salary package is aligned to the salary package of the HOPE Programme,” the unit said in response.

At present, the ministry facilitates the process of acquiring shadows but does not provide them.

“The Special Education Unit has been having ongoing conversations with HEART/NSTA Trust as we are desirous of partnering with them to create and implement a training and certification programme for shadows and caregivers,” the unit said.

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