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Hope Valley perseveres despite lack of key staff members

BY DENISE DENNIS Career & Education staff reporter dennisd@jamaicaobserver.com
Sunday, December 30, 2012


A lack of appropriate human resource personnel is at the heart of the challenges faced by Hope Valley Experimental, a 40-year-old primary school that caters to not only able-bodied students but also those with a range of disabilities.

With more than 800 students, 57 of them with special needs, principal Sharon Williams said it is no easy feat to see to the education of all.

It's a job made tougher without the benefit of a nurse and an occupational therapist or physiotherapist, which the institution currently does not have.

"Some years ago, we requested a nurse from the ministry [of Education]; we don't even have that. We have again sent in a request and I am hoping that this time it will materialise because it is a challenge. We are not medical practitioners," the principal told the Jamaica Observer.

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The disabilities with which the school has to contend range from cerebral palsy to hydrocephalus (a build-up of fluid inside the skull that leads to brain swelling) and spina bifida (incomplete closure of the spine).

Some students have learning disabilities, while others have mild to moderate mental retardation. According to the principal, there are also cases of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as students who have suffered a stroke or have other health impairments, such as sickle cell and brittle bone disease.

"It's very challenging. People wouldn't understand," Williams said, stressing that to do their job as teachers and caregivers at Hope Valley Experimental requires a "strong heart and a lot of patience".

"The teachers do everything -- from lifting to cleaning to feeding. Some children are incontinent... and the teachers deal with that," the principal added.

Sonja Montague, the teacher with responsibility for the special education unit, attested to how stressful things can get, especially when a crisis involving a special needs child impacts the education of others.

There have been days, she said, when she has had to get on her knees to clean up after one of their special needs children.

Meanwhile, Montague said the special education unit, staffed by only six specially trained educators, currently caters to 35 students who are profoundly challenged. She explained that as soon as students are seen to be able to function academically, they are transferred to the main school, where they are integrated with able-bodied students.

Their staffing needs aside, Williams said the Ministry of Education refuses to grant exemptions for those students who are clearly not competent to sit national examinations, notably the Grade Six Achievement Test and the Grade Four Literacy Test.

"A lot of our children can't even hold a pencil. When they have to do exams, we get readers and writers for them, as some of them are extremely low functioning. So while there are those who do really well, at the other end of the spectrum, you have those who really cannot do national exams," she told Career & Education.

Such students, Williams noted, oftentimes become agitated or withdrawn during exams even as the school's performance is dealt an unfair blow since their scores are counted in the overall average for the institution.

"Over the years, we beg the ministry to just pull them from the national exams. In the Grade Four Literacy Test, [for example], we got a 61 per cent average because we have 11 of the students who really couldn't manage that exam at all. But they still count them. It's unfair," Williams said.

"A child cannot tell the colour red or even hold a pencil, how can they manage a GSAT paper? Seriously? And they get frustrated," added Montague.

Also a challenge is the lack of social support from family experienced by some of their special needs students, some of whom are wards of the state and others, residents of the neighbouring Sir John Golding Rehabilitation Centre.

Still, the team at Hope Valley Experimental perseveres, celebrating each small success from their special needs kids and the academic achievements of the others.

"When you have a child for two or three years, who, when they came, couldn't stack a toy and now they can even stack two or they couldn't hold a pencil [and then they can]... When a child couldn't speak and now they can say something, persons outside may say 'that's all they did', but for us, it's a milestone," said Montague, adding that these are things that fuel her passion for her work.

They are the same things that inspire principal Williams and the rest of the staff to go on.

"You must have passion and tenacity if you are going to be sticking with it. It's a great field, it makes you compassionate," Williams said of her work with special needs children.

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