Struggle to find schooling for special needs children

Carien Harcombe had trouble finding school space for her daughter Jamie until a place opened at the Lighthouse School.

Jordan is, in many ways, a regular child. He can read, write and loves running around playing soccer with his friends.

But the 6-year-old has a developmental disability that means he learns at a slower pace than his peers and needs speech and occupational therapy to keep up.

He has been slower to develop emotionally too, and is prone to the occasional meltdown, according to his parents Michael and Lexi Binckes.

They say his issues are sometimes barely noticeable and always manageable.

But they have faced an ongoing struggle to find a mainstream school willing to accept him. When they were told he would not be able to stay at his private school beyond the first year, they felt like they were out of options.

“It is difficult to get a child in any school in Cayman because there are more children than spaces – that’s the first problem,” Mrs. Binckes said.

“The second problem is when you have a kid that needs some special help. Then you’ve got no chance.”

Jordan’s situation is not unique.

The Special Needs Foundation of the Cayman Islands estimates that 1,400 local children have some kind of learning disability.

It says children with special needs are routinely denied admission to schools. If they are admitted, there is often no support for their learning needs, and they are left to fail.

Though some are catered for by specialist institutions, like the Lighthouse School and Hope Academy, many more flounder with limited support in mainstream classrooms.

Others stay at home with a helper and have little access to formal education at all, according to Susie Bodden, executive leader of the foundation.

“This is a section of the population that is extremely under-served in the Cayman Islands at the moment.

“There are many children not receiving the quality of education they could be,” she said.

The foundation has begun a fundraising campaign and transformed its mission from advocacy to direct action in an effort to better address the problems.

With support from the Washington state-based Haring Center for Research and Training in Inclusive Education, it had developed a program to bring new methods to Cayman’s schools.

It plans to hire a team of specialists, including full-time staff and consultants, to work with schools and help them adapt their teaching methods to ensure that even children with severe learning disabilities can thrive in mainstream classrooms. The foundation is also opening its own headquarters, Our House, on Godfrey Nixon Way in March as a central hub and training center.

“The ultimate vision is that every school, play school, day care center in Cayman accepts special needs children and provides them appropriate and adequate support,” said Nik Tatarkin, who took over as chair of the foundation’s board in October.

Mr. Tatarkin’s company Wheaton Precious Metals has signed on as a seed donor, committing $160,000 a year for the next three years.

The foundation, which has relaunched its website and is seeking sponsors for its programs, ultimately hopes to raise $1.8 million to fund the first three years of a long-term project, equipping and supporting schools to better serve children with special needs.

Mr. Tatarkin, whose own daughter Jana, 10, has a learning disability and attends Hope Academy, said the aim was for government, private schools and the private sector to work together.

He added, “No successful example exists where government does this alone. The private sector can step up and help government do it better.”

He said four schools, two public and two private, had expressed interest in being involved in the pilot program.

“Our plan is to employ inclusion specialists to go into schools and review their systems, policies and ethos and do a lot of professional development,” Ms. Bodden said.

She said schools were often anxious about taking on children with unusual syndromes because they did not know how to deal with it.

“They are very nice about it but they say, ‘I don’t think we are the most suitable place for your child.’ The trouble is there is no more suitable place,” she said.

Ms. Bodden said decades of research showed that keeping children with learning disabilities in mainstream classrooms was better for the child and better for their peers, both academically and socially.

She said training schools to cater to special needs kids would give principals and admissions staff more confidence to accept children with lower IQs or with learning disabilities.

“The first step is for the children with learning difficulties who are already in mainstream schools to get a better deal,” she said, “then, hopefully, for the schools to be less anxious about taking some of these other little ones.”

For Mr. and Mrs. Binckes, a change in approach cannot come soon enough.

The experience of being asked to leave the private school after being on the waiting list for years left them feeling let down.

“We did everything we could in terms of therapists and it seemed like they were not willing to do their part. They are not prepared to help special needs kids at all, it seemed like it was too much effort,” Mr. Binckes said.

The couple say they were lucky to find a place for Jordan at Grace Christian Academy in West Bay, where he is thriving in a regular classroom.

“The principal there understands special needs and they have been brilliant with him, but I know that is not the case for a lot of kids,” Mr. Binckes said.

Carien Harcombe has had a similar experience trying to find a school for her child, Jamie, who has Down syndrome.

After prolonged efforts, including moving away from the island for a spell, they were able to find a good day care center, Tiny Tots, that was equipped to take her without specialist help.

But once she graduated, there was no school prepared to take her.

“There was no space at the Lighthouse School and we were going to have to home school her or send her to private school, which wasn’t an option because there aren’t any equipped to take her,” Ms. Harcombe said.

Eventually, she said, Tiny Tots agreed to take Jamie, now 6, until a place opened up at the Lighthouse School in January.

“That is the right place for her at the moment,” she said.

“She is non verbal and there are a couple of skills she needs to work on in that environment.”

Ms. Harcombe, who is also a member of the National Council for Persons with Disabilities, believes a more inclusive approach from mainstream schools will help free up places at specialist schools for children with more severe disabilities.

Ms. Bodden said it was understandable that schools were anxious about teaching special needs children, if they do not have the training or the resources.

“I think the biggest thing is the fear of the unknown. They are worried they will get children they don’t know how to handle,” she said.

“Our new project is designed to get them that support. We are not asking them to take a child with an unusual syndrome without help. We will give them the knowledge and practical skills.”

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