Sunday, March 10, 2013

School Search

As only a parent of a special needs child will know, getting your child a place in a good school, one that suits the child's personality and supports the child's needs, is nearly as difficult as finding that proverbial needle in a haystack.

For one, there is the list of available schools, which, as I have mentioned before, does not exist for children on the Autism Spectrum. A friend whose daughter has Down's Syndrome was given a "Bible" shortly after her child was born, detailing doctors, therapists, schools and various other programmes available at the time. This directory is regularly updated at doctor's visits.

Children on the autism spectrum, on the other hand, are rarely diagnosed before they are two years old, and when they are, because each child is different, finding the right course of action is always a long process of trial and error. There are diets, biomedical treatments, assorted therapies and many more. Finding a school, when the child is of age, is just one more challenge.

After ruthlessly questioning friends, teachers, therapists and random women in waiting rooms, supermarkets and bank queues, I made a list and went through it one school at a time.

First was Reach International School, an inclusive school even nearer our home than Little A's current preschool. A visit though, led me to think that this would not be the best environment for my son, as the work is done on a largely self-motivated basis. There was no teacher and class interaction, or even small group work. Students meet with the teacher one at a time for instructions and complete the set work quietly at their desks. At the moment my son needs a shadow teacher just to keep him seated long enough to complete a single worksheet, so this type of school was not right for him.

Next came The Laren School, a Montessori school located in a commercial building not far from home. My parent's visit morning was very eye-opening. While my sister attended a Montessori school, I knew very little about it beyond that the preschool advocated independence and taught children self-help skills as part of the programme. I thought Little A would benefit hugely through their manipulative material-based learning methods.

Unfortunately, it turns out there will not be a space available for him this coming school year. Since Laren runs vertical classes, children aged 6-9 are in one group, and there were already 3 special needs kids among them. A new student would only be offered a place if one of the special needs students was ready to move to the regular group.

Inclusion schools generally accept a maximum of 2 special needs children per class, in classes of up to a dozen students. Larger schools run on more traditional programmes do not support inclusion at all.

St. Mary of the Woods's SPED coordinator impressed me throughly with her knowledge and years of experience in the field of educating special needs children in a traditional setting. I wasn't sure though, if Little A would benefit from being mainstreamed in Filipino language social studies classes, but I did like that they are a Catholic school, as I want my son raised in the same faith as his parents, grandparents and cousins.

The Learning Child turned out to be a bit of a dead end as they have started phasing out their grade school levels and are maintaining only the preschool.

The Abba's Orchard, another Montessori school, did not seem very keen to process Little A's application, as after I paid a visit and made several phone calls, they never got around to scheduling him for an assessment.

Create School had a wait list as long as my arm. Plus, they weren't really an inclusion school in that Little A would be in a separate class, along with other special needs kids of his same level of ability.

Britesparks School was recommended by a friend of my sister, whose child attended the school and has since moved successfully to a traditional one. However, a visit and telephone call revealed that their SPED support department had dematerialized due to talent being lost overseas and to other industries over the last two years. They will only accept very high-functioning, Asperger's students. Not proper inclusion, then, so not an option for us.

I was hesitant to even apply Little A to Keys Grade School, as I had it from one of the directors and the principal back in August that spaces for special needs children were reserved years in advance by the students attending their preschool. However, my mum's former student turned out to be the vice-principal, and she convinced us to pay a visit anyway. I was so glad we did, as we were beyond impressed by the teachers, the programme and most of all, the students. They were, without exception, confident, articulate, interested and positive in an environment that clearly nurtured and developed them properly.

As a special needs applicant, Little A's entire support team was required to attend an open day, and then write recommendation letters. His application has been processed and he is scheduled for assessment and a two-day sit in next week.

Keys is a fair school, assessing all applicants over a period of at least two days and making final decisions and issuing offer or rejection letters in mid-April. As their academic year begins in early June, this does not leave parents of children who are not accepted much leeway to find backup schools at that late time.

Apart from those, my alternatives were SPED centres, which would focus more on self-help and life skills rather than academics, which seems a shame when considering that Little A was reading ahead of his year level and has achieved many improvements by modeling his neurotypical classmates. I prayed we would find a place at an inclusion school.

My prayers were answered. More on that next post!

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