Special needs students short shrifted

Special Education in the Cayman Islands suffers from lingering organization and leadership deficiencies.

And they have to be fixed states a report released last week outlining special education needs within the Cayman Islands.

‘The Ministry is currently reviewing the recommendations, and any changes relating to the provision and delivery of special education in the Cayman Islands will be incorporated and implemented within the ongoing education reform process,’ said Education Minister Alden McLaughlin.

Arizona-based educational psychologist and special needs expert Brent Holt conducted the study, which revealed that students at both ends of the spectrum are underserved by Cayman’s education system.

The findings of the November 2006 study were based on interviews with Ministry employees, Government agency stakeholders and parents and concerned citizens, identifying strengths of systems, barriers to effectiveness and proposed solutions.

Mr. McLaughlin said the investigation targeted provision of services to children with special education needs, including gifted education, as well as other barriers to learning such as English as a second language, which he noted is increasing in the Cayman Islands, and other barriers like counselling needs and socio-economics.

The report says a major flaw lies in the fact that placement of seemingly troubled students in special education services is evaluated by teacher or parent intuition rather than through a systematic referral process backed by remediation efforts.

The report argues that skills deficits exhibited by a student may not always reflect a specific disability but may actually represent school-wide problems within the curriculum or class-wide problems such as poor preparation or poor instruction.

In one example of this disconnect, 38 per cent of Cayman Brac High School students have been classified as special needs students, nearly triple the international standard. But the group significantly exceeds Grand Cayman students’ English and math test scores.

The lack of structure in determining who qualifies as a special needs student is easy to rectify, he said.

The report recommends that with only one full-time highly qualified special education needs coordinator for each of the Ministry’s four new school groupings will have the benefit of providing clear leadership and decision-making authority with the educational system.

A major concern outlined in the report is the high number of suspensions coming out of John Gray High School and the fate of the Suspension Unit at the Alternative Education Centre.

‘Suspension and exclusion from education only perpetuates disengagement from instruction including dropping out, increases the likelihood of involvement in the juvenile justice system and exacerbates social exclusion, which in some countries has led to gang affiliation,’ the report says.

Mr. Holt recommends government schools move away from using punishment for discipline and make an effort to engage in more research-supported school-wide positive behavioural strategies.

The deficiencies within Cayman’s special education needs services involve children with learning challenges and bright students alike. For example, while two primary schools in Grand Cayman do offer gifted programs, none of the high schools do.

‘We need to find a better way to nurture our gifted students, many of whom are now are under-serviced and react by acting out from boredom and lack of stimulation,’ said Mr. McLaughlin.

The solution lies in offering more differentiated learning, where student learning groups are formed according to skills and abilities rather than age, he said.

The report found that while there is no lack of excellent special education needs practitioners in Cayman, additional specialist services are required in areas such as educational psychology, speech, language and occupational therapy, as well as follow-up services.

The Minister said recommended changes will be acted upon immediately as part of the overall education reform strategies under way within the Ministry.