Children with special educational needs often need the kind of one-on-one attention that can be difficult to receive in a regular school setting.

When Janet Dixon’s daughter was entering Year 3 at Bodden Town Primary, she had already been assessed by the Department of Education Services as having special education needs. The department recommended she receive additional help.

Dixon was told to bring her daughter to school early each morning during breakfast club hours so an occupational therapist could work one-on-one with her before class began. Two months passed and Dixon said her daughter told her she was not seeing the specialist and, instead, was just playing with other children who came early to school. Dixon said she went to meet with the specialist in the early morning.

“I went to the class where she was supposed to go,” Dixon said. “The door was locked.”

School personnel gave her surprising news.

“They said, ‘No one ever uses that room,’” she said. And when she asked where the specialist was, “They said, ‘That’s [Department of] Education stuff.’ They didn’t seem to know what was going on. They had no clue.”

Dixon said she was told the specialist was out sick.

It was not until the end of the school year, Dixon said, that her daughter came home with a note informing Dixon that the specialist had been out on medical leave for the entire year.

“They never thought to tell me,” she said.

Her daughter had also been assessed as needing a speech therapist. Dixon was told one would visit the school to work with her daughter regularly. A discharge report, dated 31 Oct. 2016, said her daughter was seen weekly in the 2015-2016 school year “for speech and language therapy”. But Dixon said no such therapist met with her daughter. An assessment by a psychiatrist, recommended by a Department of Education Services evaluator, also never happened, she said.

She decided to seek help elsewhere.

“I let government know she wasn’t coming back to school,” she said.

She sought help that summer at the Cayman Learning Centre, one of several tutoring and instructional centres in Cayman. When the regular school year began in the fall, Dixon kept her daughter at the learning centre.

Now, however, she and other parents who have gone outside of the system to find the help their children need, are being told the learning centres they rely on may no longer be allowed to serve their children.

Parents face dilemma

The situation boils down to this:

Many parents who have children with serious learning disabilities such as dyslexia, attention deficit and autism, say the government schools are not equipped to provide adequate support for their children.

These same parents say private schools, which often have impacted enrolment already, have limited resources for dealing with special needs children. Some say they managed to enrol their children in private schools only to be told their child’s needs were too great for the school to handle.

Due to changes resulting from the 2016 Education Law, tutoring centres, which were previously allowed to serve five students full-time, are now strictly limited to supplemental support for homeschooled children of no more than two hours per day unless the centres apply and are approved to operate as an ‘educational institution’.

A letter from the Education Council, dated 1 June 2018, effectively delayed that rule until the start of the 2019-2020 school year in September.

There are numerous tutoring services across Cayman, but the four major ones – Cayman Learning Centre, Clever Fish, Footsteps and High Achievement Academy – are most affected. All are in the process of applying, or appealing denied applications, for status as full-time educational institutions.

The letter extending that original deadline was signed by Education Council Chairman Dan Scott. It said that centres receiving approval as educational institutions would “be granted the authority to accommodate more than five full-time students … on a full-time basis”.

Scott did not respond to several requests for comment. The Ministry of Education also did not respond to questions on the issue by deadline.

But if the tutoring centres do not receive that approval to continue serving these special needs students, some of the parents utilising those services say there will be nowhere for their children to go. While their children are classified as homeschooled, these parents say it takes specialised knowledge or training to provide the education their children need, skills the parents do not have. If there are no school options, they say, they have little choice but to send their children off island to receive appropriate help, or move their entire families away from the Cayman Islands.

Some have already done so.

Caymanian Deirdre Billes ended up sending her son abroad because the school system in Cayman could not meet his needs, she said.

“My kid had multiple learning challenges,” Billes said. “He’s on the autism spectrum. He’s so distractible and so distracting [to other kids].”

Billes said she enrolled her son as a preschooler in Cayman International School. It did not go well, so she homeschooled him during his kindergarten year. She then tried placing him in Hope Academy, a school designed to handle children with learning challenges. Officials at Hope, she said, told her they did not have the resources to help him.

Billes turned to Cayman Learning Centre.

“If this centre wasn’t here, I don’t know what we would have done,” she said. “And there’s so many more kids like [him].”

In the three-to-one student-teacher ratio at the learning centre, she said, her son did well. But when she got wind of changes that might happen with the new education law, and saw the possibility of the tutoring centre option being cut off, she decided to be proactive and began looking outside the country, first in Switzerland and later in the United States, settling on Brehm Prep School in Illinois.

Her son, now 14, has thrived at the school.

“He’s going to be an independent young man and I didn’t know if he ever would be,” Billes said.

Some families have left

Susie Bodden is executive leader of the Special Needs Foundation, which offers respite programmes for families with special needs students, as well as helping to integrate those students into mainstream classrooms through teacher training and individual support. Bodden said Billes’ situation is not unique. She knows of families who have left the island because they saw no other option for their children.

“We have Caymanian families that are in that situation,” she said. “Cayman families should not have to leave their homes.”

Bodden said she thinks stricter requirements for the tutoring centres – those needed for them to qualify as schools – could be a good thing. But she also would like to see them continue to fill what she sees as a gap in the education system. Most schools, she said, do not provide the necessary assistance some students need for learning deficits. Dixon’s experience of not getting the promised assistance for her daughter did not surprise her.

“I’ve definitely heard that from other parents,” she said.

And, she said, if the schools cannot do it, what other option do parents have? For many this is a last resort.

“I hope someone is thinking about what’s going to happen to these kids,” she said. “For some of our parents, the concern is ‘What on Earth do we do? Our children have already failed elsewhere.’ It’s not that they haven’t tried other things.”

Kami Butcher, 46, has a 10-year-old son, and said his only option is the tutoring centres. He attended a private school for a short time, which she called a “complete disaster”. School officials, she said, eventually told her they could not accommodate her son.

A former psychologist who works for a holistic health company in Cayman, Butcher said she is not equipped to effectively educate her son in a homeschool setting.

“This is not something a parent can do,” she said, noting that it takes specialised skills and education to work with the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia her son is diagnosed with. Finding the tutoring centre, she said was a godsend.

“It’s night and day,” she said of his progress compared to when he was in private school.

“He would come home and break down crying almost every day,” she said of his time in the private school. “He said, ‘I asked the teacher, but she won’t help me. No one will help me.’ It was a horrible experience.”

Now, she said, “He’s reading. He’s writing – that was a hateful activity for him because of his dyslexia. He comes home and the first thing he does is sit down and do his homework. He’ll do homework for two hours.”

She’s fearful of what might be taken from him.

“Without this programme, he’s, for lack of a better word, screwed,” she said. “He needs to be on the path to reintegration (into a mainstream classroom). Without a program like this, it’s not going to happen.”

She called the implementation of the new regulations silly.

“It makes no sense and it’s disruptive for the kids,” she said. “It’s not right. We’re actually solving a problem here.”

Billes said she does not understand the thinking behind the regulations that would, in her view, eliminate the only choice some parents have for educating their special needs children in Cayman. She called the current regulations “too rigid”.

“It’s like you’re given a kid that’s an uphill battle and it’s made more steep” by the regulations, she said. “It’s like climbing a cliff instead of climbing a hill.”

An open letter

Billes posted a letter to Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly on the Facebook page for the Cayman Advocates for Student-Centered Education. She sent a copy of the letter to the minister as an email, she said.

“Tutoring centres offering homeschooling during regular school hours have filled a wide gap and provide a level of education that is very needed,” she wrote. “The parents of children still using a tutoring centre … are very concerned that they be able to stick with what is working best for their student.”

She argued that having the centres seek the status of an educational institution, when they are limited to five full-time students, is economically impractical. And she requested that the minister meet with concerned parents regarding the issue.

She said neither O’Connor-Connolly nor anyone from the ministry responded to her 22 Jan. letter.

Billes’s letter came out of a meeting held by the Special Needs Foundation and, according to the letter, attended by two representatives from the Department of Education, administrator Errol Levy and Barbara Peace-Ebanks, a senior school improvement officer.

Carrie Lackey attended the meeting. She said she thought there was a disconnect between the department representatives and others in attendance. She described a meeting where some parents in the room were in tears and there was a feeling of resistance on the part of the Department of Education officials. She said Levy seemed dismissive and placed blame on the tutoring centres.

“He said it’s the tutoring centres’ fault because they didn’t apply” for school status, she said.

But one tutoring centre official said it was only in recent months that the government produced the forms that would have allowed them to make that application.

Lackey is one of those parents who ended up sending her daughter abroad for school. The 15-year-old attends a private school in Halifax, Canada.

An psycho-educational evaluation Lackey had done by the Miami Counseling & Resource Center assessed her daughter has having ADHD and dyslexia. Her score in mathematics was in the 20th percentile for her age group. Her written language and reading percentiles were in the single digits. After Lackey enrolled her daughter at Clever Fish tutorial centre, she said, she “excelled beyond our wildest expectations”.

When it looked as if that option would be taken away, Lackey asked education department officials what they suggested.

“They said she could go to John Gray [High School],” she said.

Lackey disagreed, but rather than engage in a protracted battle, she decided to go offshore.

“She’s doing great,” she said of her daughter. “The school is amazing, but it’s $50,000 a year and we’ve lost our daughter for four years. It’s pretty tough.”

The Special Needs Foundation’s Bodden, who worked as an educational psychologist for government for six years and taught school in England, said unless the problem is fixed, more parents will face the same dilemma. The real answer, she said, is a change in the way special needs students are seen and treated. She’s a strong proponent of mainstreaming such students.

“The ideal situation is that all schools are inclusive. If you accept the idea that all human beings have equal value, the schools would treat children as such. Once we accept that, then you have inclusion.”

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