A school that fits

By the time Stevens* parents came to Margaret Logan at Rosemeade Private School, they were at their wits end. Their son had been expelled from three schools. He was doing drugs, despised authority and had a criminal record pending. Even Logan, who had been a remedial teacher for 25 years, was intimidated.

But these children are my passion, says Logan. The ones who dont fit into the narrow, the norm. They have a special individuality and enormous potential that needs to be tapped into. In a mainstream school, they go looking for mischief as a way of venting their energy and unique intelligence because it is different to others. And they get labelled as problem children.

Five months after he had been accepted into Rosemeade, Steven was getting Bs and Cs, and was enjoying the schools particular system. Rosemeade High in Rondebosch, Cape Town, has a decidedly informal atmosphere. The kids are a lively lot, burning with the grumpy, awkward frustration of old souls in adolescent bodies.

Ive always summarised it as a round peg in a square hole, says Logan.

She explains that school children are taught through two primary senses: hearing and sight. If either of these faculties are even slightly impaired, the child is unable to cope with the pace and methods of instruction and he or she simply switches off. Their marks drop, and with it their self-esteem.

Basically, the system of teaching in mainstream schools is not geared to these children, says Logan. They learn, think and often behave differently. You cant have confrontational rules for these kids. Youd have an all-out war. Weve had children come to our school where most of the rules they had broken were for things such as uniform infringements. One boy had 40 hours of detention outstanding [at his previous school] because his shirt was messy. Isnt that a bit ridiculous?

I feel very strongly that there is a right school for each child, and that doesnt mean that the school is any better or worse.

Lettie Theron, head of the Western Capes special education department, says there are 380 government schools that cater for kids with learning disabilities ranging from blindness and cerebral palsy to dyslexia.

In 1996, a state commission was set up to investigate special needs education in South Africa. In 2001 the commission published a White Paper that set out a four-pronged plan that would eventually lead to full integration of children into government schools by 2020. The plan sets out the need for:

District support teams to coach and support mainstream schools in integration. (This has already been implemented in the Western Cape);

Development of special schools as resource centres to provide technical and logistical support to integrated mainstream schools;

Full-service schools to accommodate learners with low- and moderate-support needs such as ramps for wheelchairs and special toilets. (The Western Cape has 21 such schools);

Educational support teams that co-opt the services of specialised consultants such as therapists and psychologists.

But Logan is one among many who cannot see the governments policy of inclusion working.

Its wonderful in principle, she says, but in practical terms there is just no way. The teachers are struggling to cope with the kids as it is. It takes years to train a remedial teacher.

Rosemeade School has permission to conduct a two-year course over grades 11 and 12 that provides practical career training by including subjects such as business correspondence, computers, catering and accounting. But when the new National Curriculum Statement for grades 10 to 12 is introduced all learners will be required to take either maths or mathematical literacy. Logan is doubtful that remedial kids will be able to cope with either forms of maths.

We are fighting tooth and nail to retain this curriculum because it is ideal for children with learning disabilities, says Logan. From next year we want to introduce educare and the year after that cosmetology. Weve had children who did the catering course, got a holiday job at the [Cape Town International] Convention Centre, where they … were offered permanent positions as a chefs.

It is estimated that one in four of all learners require special education. With mainstream schools already buckling under financial backlogs, is it realistic to expect them to cope with an influx of remedial children? Schools such as Rosemeade provide a specialised environment that takes time and money to cultivate. But are there enough of these kinds of schools and are they affordable?

Theron points out, We are not going to just dump special needs children into mainstream schools. We are building a support system and that will take us many years.

She adds, I can understand that on one hand some people feel that absolute integration is the way to go, says Theron, while others feel that no integration should be attempted. But the answer lies somewhere in the middle, depending on the resources available.

*Not his real name

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Ami Kapilevich
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