Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Children with special needs grasp for hope in schools

(photo courtesy of

By: Rachel Zabonick
Edited by: Alex Stuckey

The Schools of Hope for children with special needs in Jamaica, operated by the Jamaican Association on Mental Retardation and the Ministry of Education, were created with the intention of providing exactly that — hope for students who have faced extreme adversity in educational success.

However, in the wake of the economic downturn in the U.S. and Europe, Jamaica’s struggle in special needs education has amplified barriers that impeded the academic success of students with illnesses such as autism, Down Syndrome and the hearing impaired.

Lack of Funding

The lack of funding for teachers, classroom and specialists are just a few of the barriers that challenge children with special needs from succeeding in school, said Eric Wills, director of the Jamaica Field Service Project.

“Most schools simply have no teachers trained to deal with mental or physical handicaps,” Willis said. “For this reason, as a child falls farther and farther behind, they often times are allowed to not attend classes, instead wandering the school yard - kind of on permanent recess.”

The recent economic downturn in the world had a devastating effect on the already dire situation, he added.

The cost of food, medicine, textbooks and other necessities has increased in Jamaica, making proper education of students with and without special needs even more difficult, Willis said.

Jamaica’s entire education system is under resourced, said Colin Greenland, president of Jamaica College’s Parent-Teachers Association (PTA) and contributor to The Jamaica Gleaner.

“The government should allocate more percentages of the national budget to education,” he said.

Need for specialized testing

Another problem for special needs students in the Jamaican education system is that most students don not have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), said Beverley Gallimore-Vernon, a special education teacher in Jamaica. This is unlike in the United States where IEPs are requirements for students with learning disabilities, she added.

IEPs are special plans designed for kids with disabilities that are specific to their disability, said Lisa Allen, a special education teacher in the U.S.

“IEPs are essential to the success of students with disabilities, because each IEP will have specific goals that the teacher has to deliver in order for the student to be successful in the classroom,” Allen added.

The sixth and fourth grades in Jamaica can be huge barriers for special needs students because all Jamaica students participate in standardized testing.

In fourth grade, students take a literacy test and sixth graders take a test that determines what high school they will attend, Wills said.

Willis added that most students with special needs are filtered out in both tests because they are given the same tests as students who do not have handicaps and are not individualized.

IEPs are important because students with special needs would take a test catered to their needs and specific to their disability, Allen said.

Because of these issues, the Schools of Hope were created to alleviate the problems hindering special needs students from succeeding.

The Schools of Hope
There are five government-aided Schools of Hope, said Hixwell Douglas, education officer in the Special Education Unit of the Ministry of Education in Kingston, Jamaica.

The five schools each have satellites sister schools resulting in 29 facilities scattered throughout various parishes in Jamaica, Douglas said, adding that the schools cater to children between the ages of five and 22.

The children are placed into grades based on two criteria — age and level of disability, Douglas said. Because of this, a classroom could have children ranging from the age 5 to 19 in the same grade, he added.

However, the Schools of Hope still face challenges that impede the students’ success.

Many of the schools suffer from the same stigma that physically and mentally handicapped persons experience outside of school in Jamaica, Greenland said.

“Lots of uneducated persons are superstitious about disability,” Greenland said, adding that these biases make it even more difficult for special needs children to function.

The Schools of Hope also face a transportation problem, Wills said.

“Students in these scattered special needs schools must travel very far each day to go to school, often taking a number of taxis and having to switch taxis as they go from town to town,” he said.

With the high cost of taxis being a factor, many don’t want to spend a day’s wage on transportation, he added.

However, there still may be hope for students who have faced challenges from multiple areas of educational success.

Many steps are being taken to improve the educational success and quality of education for students with special needs, Douglas said, adding that the Ministry of Education is working to expand programs, transform special education policy and train teachers to specialize in special education.

“We don’t have as much money as you (The U.S.), but we are doing what we can,” Douglas said.

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