Concerns grow over special needs schooling

By James Fuller

Walking into the Jansens' beautiful Bethlehem home you don't immediately get the sense this is anything other than a normal family environment.

Little by little though clues reveal themselves. One of the first is that there are no pictures on the walls.

"Charlie pulls them off and throws them," says Helen Jansen.

Helen and Dave Jansen have three sons: Sam, Charlie and Jack. Their middle son, 14-year-old Charlie, is severely autistic.

"He is mostly non-verbal and cannot communicate his wants and needs easily," says Mrs Jansen. "He has sensory issues, so he tiptoes and cannot stand wearing shoes, and he has OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) behaviours.

"For example, he will repetitively flick light switches on and off, or walk in and out of doorways several times, or touch walls an exact number of times."

The Government's announcement last week that it is closing two of the nation's four residential special needs schools has sent ripples of concern through the ranks of those involved with special needs children.

Salisbury Residential School in Nelson and McKenzie Residential School in Christchurch are set to close and many fear it could be the thin end of the wedge. One of those is Helen Jansen.

"It seems that the funding is being cut across the board with special needs students. It's very worrying," she says. "It would be a major concern for us as a family if they were to start closing down the special schools.

"There has been talk of that in the past. It's possible that it starts there (with residential schools) and continues over to other special schools."

As we walk around the house I try to get a sense of what life with an autistic child must be like.

"As a family, it's a full-time job meeting his needs, it's 24 hours a day," says Mrs Jansen, who works in the adult disability sector. "He will wake up in the middle of the night and flick all the light switches on around the house and wake everyone up. He flushes toilets hundreds of times.

"When he puts a dish in the sink, he turns the tap on and off 28 times. A lot of his OCD behaviours affect every aspect of his daily routine. And, if his routine is affected, he gets very frustrated and will start biting his hand."

Charlie's room is like any other young boy's with toys strewn around the floor. Except, unlike other youngsters, this is ordered disorder. Everything is in a specific place.

"If you move anything even a couple of centimetres to the side he will know and get upset," says Mrs Jansen.

There are two clothing labels on the floor as well.

"He tears them out of clothes. He tears them out of our clothes too."

One day, Charlie was extremely upset for an entire morning and the Jansens were at a loss as to the cause. It turned out that a latch on a sliding glass door was set in the horizontal rather than vertical position.

I get a firsthand example of the problems which can surface when Charlie's routine is interrupted. I have unwittingly done just that by asking for a photograph to be taken. It has necessitated his early departure from school.

"He came in upset and so he had to go back out," says Mrs Jansen. "He has gone out to the park and will come back and begin his coming home process again."

It's easy to get carried away with the problems of raising an autistic child but there's another thing which strikes you about the Jansens' house. This is a happy home and Charlie is a much-loved part of it.

"He's a beautiful boy and we love him very much," says his mum.

Naturally, Mrs Jansen is concerned about her child's well-being and the possible implications of the Government's two schools closures. Charlie attends a satellite class of Tauranga's Kaka Street Special School. There is no suggestion Kaka Street is threatened but Mrs Jansen gave an indication of potential issues should children like her son be forced into a mainstream environment.

"Mainstreaming is not an option due to the severity of his disability. He has a special computer he uses called the DynaVox where he taps pictures of things he would like to eat or things he wants to do to communicate. In a mainstream class, I cannot imagine how much of an interruption that would be for a teacher. It's very loud.

"Any new school environment would need to be fully fenced or he would run out on the road. He has no road sense and he's too strong to hold back. Then there's the communication supports which would need to be in place just for his simple needs to be met.

"He also couldn't deal with the loud noise and the shuffling of children, the scraping of desks. All those sounds to him are amplified."

The announcement of the intended closures of Salisbury Residential School and McKenzie Residential School was combined with a proposal for a new mixed model of support for learners with special educational needs by Education Minister Hekia Parata.

The model would include community-based services and residential special schools and the Government's new "wraparound" tailored service would be expanded, said Ms Parata.

"The new intensive wraparound service will support learners with complex needs to remain in their community and attend their local school. The service will be based in every region with a trained facilitator, usually a psychologist.

"Every learner, affected by this proposal, will have a transition plan developed between the family, residential school, local school and services, and funding will be allocated to ensure that plan is carried out

"Funding gains from closing the two residential schools will be redirected into the intensive wraparound service. The net result will be better support for more learners, and keeping communities together."

However, news of the school closures brought a withering response from New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) Te Riu Roa national president Ian Leckie. He said children with severe intellectual disabilities and behavioural issues would be pushed back into mainstream schooling without adequate long-term funding.

Mr Leckie said extra funding would only be available for affected mainstream schools for up to two years.

"Beyond that time, schools will be expected to fund specialised support needed for these children from their own budgets.

"The four residential special schools are staffed with highly-trained and qualified special education teachers. Schools will struggle to provide that level of care, especially once targeting funding is removed.

"This will inevitably place further pressure on teachers and families of these children. And the fear is that these children won't get the specialist care they need."

A Tauranga teacher's aide said there were fears within education circles that the Government was looking to cut funding and close other special needs units over time. The woman, who did not want to be named, said it had happened before.

"Many years ago, a number of these institutions which dealt with behavioural problems, birth defects or neurological problems caused by traffic accidents, were closed down. The problem doesn't go away if you close these institutions down and send them out into the public.

"I have heard a lot of whispers from high up that the Government is cutting costs in this area. It's a very big concern if that is the case. I have dealt with many parents who are frustrated and need more help."

She said teacher aides were invaluable for classrooms which contained children with special needs.

"I challenge them (the Government) to spend a whole day, even better, a week with these children to understand why they require teacher aide assistance. I can quote that the teachers in mainstream are very grateful for the teacher aides' support. Without our support, the teacher would have to constantly be stopping his/her teaching to deal with behaviour problems or interruptions from these students. Teacher aides keep them on task."

However, Tauranga National MP Simon Bridges denied that any cuts were intended.

"I am not aware of any cuts to special needs funding overall. The special needs budget for 2012-13 is about $510 million to $520 million and that compares with $504 million for the previous financial year.

"The Government's aim is to achieve a fully inclusive education system with confident schools, parents and children. The Government's mission is to see that all schools are demonstrating inclusive practices by 2014."

Mr Bridges said the Government's new wraparound approach would increase the numbers of students being helped.

"We anticipate that more students will get access to the new services as funding and resources are used more efficiently and as the expertise, skills and knowledge in local schools and communities improves over time.

"It's a perennially difficult area. We have a situation where students by definition have higher needs and parents understandably want to get the best out of the education system for them."

If any family had specific concerns they wanted him to raise with the Minister of Education they should get in touch and he would do so in his capacity as their local MP.

Kaka Street Special School is the only special school in the Tauranga region. Located in the Avenues, it covers a catchment area from Katikati through to Paengaroa and has 61 students on its roll. Of those, 28 are at its Kaka Street base and the remainder in satellite classes at Tauranga Intermediate, Merivale Primary and Te Puke Primary schools.

Kaka Street's principal, Barrie Wickens, said his students were verified either high needs or very high needs with a range of conditions including autism, global developmental delay, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and many more.

"It is hoped over the next couple of years we'll have satellite classes in Papamoa College and another couple of primary schools. Since the special education review of 2010-11, the Government has got behind opening satellite classes as an attempt to provide more options for parents as opposed to total mainstreaming. It's seen as a way of the children integrating into mainstream schools.

"More help is needed though. We've got 61 ORS (Ongoing Resourcing Scheme) students and there's about 260 of the same criteria in the region. They are all in primary, intermediate and secondary schools or there are a few who are at home.

"Our school also supplies a specialist teacher to go into mainstream schools to work with the teacher, teacher aides and the ORS student on a weekly basis with a service called the STOS (Specialist Teacher Outreach Service). That's a service the Government is really promoting and has a great future. There will be several hundred students involved with that service throughout the country.

"Kaka Street itself is not staying as an island of exclusive special needs education. With the ministry's guidance, we are going to become a resource centre for special needs in this region. All special schools have been asked to do that."

Kaka Street, which was established in 1965 has 43 staff with 24 teacher aides. It has a therapy team, which includes a physiotherapist, speech/language, music and occupational therapists.

Mr Wickens said the closure of half of the nation's residential special needs schools should not have negative implications for Kaka Street.

"The Government has agreed not to cut funding. While there isn't a lot of money out there, you don't reduce services, you must retain them. If you were to start taking more money out of the special education bucket then the first areas of hardship will be in the mainstream schools.

"Three main things came out of the 2010-11 special education review: the retention of special schools, more money going into mainstreaming and the expansion of the STOS service - putting emphasis behind the establishment of satellites."

Mr Wickens said he supported the idea of inclusive practice for all public schools.

"As a special school, we are totally behind inclusive practice and education, we're strong advocates of that. By 2014, all public schools have been charged with improving their inclusive practices.

"We have students ranging in age from 5 to 21 but we're not a school that wants to keep students for 16 years. We would like to operate as a school that gives families the option, or true choice, for their child to be with us for short, medium or long term, where we can get the child guided into routines and learning at their individual level, then perhaps to a mainstream school."

He suggested the closure of Salisbury Residential School and McKenzie Residential School had its origins in cost saving, as well as a direct result of the Christchurch earthquake and rethink of the rebuild of schools in this area.

"The cost of a child in the new wraparound scheme is calculated at $39,000 for per year and residential care costs $82,000 a year so you can see what the Government's thinking. Interestingly, it costs about the same amount to house a prisoner and we're investing a lot of money in that at the moment. I'm not equating special needs children with prisoners but it's quite an interesting comparison. I think we've got a lot of our priorities wrong."

Unfortunately, the current economic realities meant school budgets were already under pressure, said the principal.

"Across the board, across the country, teacher aides have been reduced as a result of the general economic climate. The first people to go in any school restructure are usually support staff. It's a shame but schools are tied by a tight budget. Schools have to spend their special education grant and then maybe some of their own funds as well to support teacher aides in classes.

"In general though, the whole system is underfunded.

"In good times, I would hope there's more funding going into supporting special needs kids."

Mr Wickens said Kaka Street's current roll of 61 was the highest ever and he felt that would increase. As it continued to grow, he acknowledged the dedication shown by the parents of his pupils.

For Helen Jansen and her son, Charlie, the feeling of appreciation is mutual. "What Charlie's got at Kaka Street is perfect. It's amazing.

"It's a small class with a calm environment and there's activities like singing and swimming.

"Kaka Street offers an outstanding education for special needs children in the more severe range. They are able to meet their needs at a very high level.

"The staff are very friendly, it's like a family environment and everyone cares.

"They work together with parents. It's a lovely atmosphere and Charlie really enjoys it."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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