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Special Needs School offers a window of hope

1~ The old taboos need to be cast away ~

SUCKER GARDEN--For parents of special needs children, the AHEAD Centre for Excellence on Cob Cactus Road in Sucker Garden is a unique resource. The small blue two-storey school stands just off the main road and in this humble building great things are happening. Approximately 30 students are currently being given the specialized academic, social, and occupational guidance they need. The school is owned and operated by Pastor and Mrs. Allen, and a total of twelve teachers work with the youths every week day.

While the school seeks to help any student experiencing challenges in the regular school system or those with mental or physical challenges, there are two main areas in which they focus their efforts: Secondary students working towards CXC exams needing individualized attention, and also any child displaying a range of behaviours typically labelled “autistic.” Included in these two groups are students transitioning from specialized classrooms to more mainstream environments, and students who did poorly on high school entrance exams.

WEEKender was given a tour of the school last week by Pastor Allen, who teaches several secondary classes and helps with administrative tasks. The school, he shared, began in French Quarter and moved to its present location in September of 2008 due to the need for more space. The private school receives most of its funding from AMFO, and is registered with the government. With only five classrooms, two assessment rooms, a kitchen, a small computer lab, and a couple of offices, the school is using its facility to its maximum potential. During the tour, construction was noted at the side of the building, soon to be a patio area which they hope will provide increased study facilities and a recreational area. The front yard is also to be developed as an area for climbing and playing. Within a few months, the building will be wheelchair accessible for students with cerebral palsy or other physical limitations. Currently students are taken off campus for physical education including swimming, basketball, track and field, soccer, and they also take educational field trips to places like GEBE and the port.

The classrooms are where most of the action occurs, though. The philosophy of the school is unique: it embraces each student’s talents and natural learning styles. A calm and comfortable feel was the overwhelming mood of the place as I toured, with students friendly and attentive. One autistic teenager was proud to display many of his very impressive drawings and other artistic creations, pages and pages of detailed and exacting work, typical of those with autism. Pastor Allen laughed, “You caught him in a good mood; he sometimes doesn’t want to show his work to people.” Other students show remarkable ability in solving mathematical problems. “We have students who, you give them their work and within 10 minutes they will have finished it, it will be correct, and they will ask for more. So there is a great range in diversity. The diversity comes from both their abilities and their disabilities.”

The teachers at AHEAD Centre for Excellence are used to this diversity, and while they often work with students one on one, they engage in regular training to facilitate the different needs of their students. While regular schools must keep a steady pace to cover a set curriculum, these students might be left behind. The school’s BOOST programme coordinator Beverly Gibbs noted that some students have been out of school for several years, and one student, while in school for two years, never received a report card and was completely left behind from a teaching point of view.

One 14-year-old student named Marc Arrindell was introduced by Pastor Allen during the tour. “Marc is brilliant,” he told me, “He is going to become a teacher.” Amazingly, Marc had not been in school until he came to the AHEAD Centre. He has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair, but since he found this place, he has made huge strides academically, socially and emotionally, in a short period of time, the pastor shared.

Another autistic teenager passed by on her way home as we talked on the porch, and Pastor Allen asked her, “Do you have any homework?” She shook her head. He pressed, “You don’t have any homework? Teacher Judith, does she have any homework? Ah, you’ve got to study. Come here, you’re supposed to study?” Typical of any teenager, she answered, “I studied last night.” The pastor laughed, “Oh, you studied last night so you think you don’t have to study tonight? You have to study, you know,” he emphasized with a laugh. “Okay, have a good afternoon.”

BOOST Program

A part of what they do at the AHEAD Centre is specifically designed to work with young elementary-aged students with autism. The BOOST (Best-Out-Of-School-Time) Program currently has four youngsters, with seven awaiting assessment. When asked if those seven will be able to come to the school, Teacher Beverly indicated that they would, but they just had to organize a new schedule to accommodate them.

The work with the BOOST students is done entirely one on one, as children with autism are challenged with weak communications skills and require almost one hundred percent of a teacher’s attention. Students come in on staggered days, from 1:00 until 4:00pm. The program is facilitated by Teacher Joslyn, who noted that the school is hoping to hire additional staff. She also expressed her belief that the old taboos need to be cast away, saying, “Many people are in denial, and they don’t want to deal with their children who have special needs. Slowly, however, those old ways are dying, and people are coming forward to ask for help.”

Pastor Allen reiterated, “We don’t really have, and I don’t think anybody has, an accurate number of how many children with autism there are on St. Maarten. In times past, people thought, ‘Well, if my child is this way or that way,’ they would just tuck them inside and don’t do anything with them. But little by little, we are seeing people come forward, so we think, ‘Okay, maybe there are 25,’ but then we find there is another here or there, so we just don’t know.” The principal of the school, Mrs. Allen, shared her thoughts, “Early intervention is a lot better, but so far we are working with children from ages 5, 6, or 7. We haven’t had any direct referrals for really young ones, but that is a group that we will accommodate as and when they come forward.”

I was privileged to observe a nine-year-old autistic boy that was at the school for his first day. He and the teacher sat on the floor, sorting toys quietly. While it looked like play, the youngster was being assessed, observed to see exactly what he is capable of doing. His mother was on stand by in case he wasn’t able to make the transition to the teacher, but all went well. His mother smiled and backed away, obviously relieved to see her son in good hands.

Principal Allen explained how the assessments are generally carried out, “If they show that they have the capacity to learn something or to follow instructions, then we know how to structure their lessons when we start. The lessons may have to be, K [kindergarten level], or maybe even younger than that. We have to observe how they engage, any emotional issues they may have, and how they communicate. We have one student who will be coming in soon; she has no communication at all. She’ll be coming in shortly, so we have to find a way to communicate with them.”

Once the child is assessed, they focus on helping him or her to gain basic skills. Principal Allen: “With the BOOST Program we do cater for the younger ones, because there isn’t very much for children of that age to go to school, not for learning, maybe day care, just to keep them. Sometimes they are placed in day-care, because the regular schools won’t accept them.” She continued, “We use the curriculum that is set up in the St. Maarten elementary schools, so we set up their tasks for them, so either the math or the language, maybe handwriting. We set it up for their learning styles, maybe activities, maybe games. It may be best to use drawing, if art is a medium through which we can work with them, it just depends on how they express themselves. Once we set that up, then we start at the very basics, depending on where they are, we set targets and work towards the targets with them.”

Secondary Program

Even with the older students, the first thing that is done is assessment. Pastor Allen, “They would have academic assessment, learning style assessment, social assessment, and an occupational or career assessment. Just to get an idea of what they would like to do as a career, by the time they get to third form, they may have changed their minds two or three times, but we have found that most of them, even by the first year have a good idea of what they want to do.” One of their first assignments is often a research project about their career choice, which they then present to an audience. Through all of this process, they find out a lot of the details they may not have known before, such as the probable pay range and the training needed for that job.

“Intellectually, it would appear that they cannot function, when they come to us, we structure their work. One of the students that came to us last year was not doing well at all in his local school, he was referred. At the present time he is in the Form One group and now he is doing exceptionally well. He is actually one of the top students, and that is because of the structuring of the lessons. And he also wants to learn, which helps, but we talk a lot with him and take the time to help him organize his thoughts and how he expresses himself. I wouldn’t so much say these children just need remedial work, we do have a remedial program, but that is a whole different approach.”

Goals

Principal Allen expressed her hopes for how the school can impact the community in a positive way. While there are other groups also working in this area, she sees the need for an organization that functions as a hub for all special needs children on the island. They may be able to help those with disorders, or they may be able to find them help.

The principal: “We would like parents who have children diagnosed with autism, or who have children with behaviours that are unexplainable or that appear bizarre, to get in touch with us.” Teacher Beverley offered, “Not only parents, but teachers who notice that some kids in the class are falling behind, if they get in contact with us, maybe we can work with them.”

The school is poised to offer a window of hope for many families in our community. They are knowledgeable, well trained, growing quickly and doing a lot already. They can help with many kinds of special educational needs, but they emphasize that they primarily focus on those with autism and those that are really struggling in high school. To contact the AHEAD Centre for Excellence call 580-8234 or e-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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