We recently found out that Bennett has been offered a spot at Renfrew for Grade 1 and we are over the moon! Our son has autism and has been attending Renfrew Educational Services — which has an integrated special needs preschool/kindergarten program in addition to a special needs grades (1 to 6) program — since he turned three. I knew there was a possibility he wouldn’t get a placement for the 2013-14 school year (there are only 12 spots in the Grade 1 class at the main centre), so we had been looking at other schools since December, including an autism school and a Calgary Board of Education designated special needs school. While these options both had much to recommend them, they didn’t give me the same warm-fuzzy feeling as Renfrew.
I love Renfrew’s bright, cheerful classrooms, play-based learning style and friendly staff. Everyone at the Janice McTighe Centre knows Bennett and greets him each day with a smile and lots of love. My wish for Bennett to continue at Renfrew also has a lot to do with the progress he’s made over the last three years; he clearly thrives there. And he loves going to school — the highlight of his day is when the bus pulls up in front of our house.
When Bennett started Renfrew preschool just after his third birthday he was basically non-verbal, with poor social, play and gross motor skills, and severely delayed fine motor skills. With help from his teachers and aides, and the therapists at Renfrew, Bennett is now talking, playing with school friends and making huge strides with both gross motor and fine motor tasks (he can now , for the most part, dress himself — hooray!).
In Grade 1 Bennett will still have an IPP (Individual Program Plan with specific goals) and continue to work with speech, occupational, physical and behavioural therapists at school to achieve those goals. His classroom will have centres (like in kindergarten), but the teacher and aides will break the children into skill-appropriate groups and work on letters, numbers and other Grade 1 concepts. For Bennett, it’s the best of both worlds (play and therapy meet elementary “academia”).
When I told one of the teachers at my daughter’s school that Bennett would be attending Renfrew for Grade 1 her comment surprised me. “Good for you for keeping him there.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Why wouldn’t I want to keep him there? It’s such a great school.” She went on to tell me that in her experience, many parents choose to “mainstream” their special needs children and that there’s a perceived stigma associated with a special needs school, and special education in general. This surprised me.
I get that inclusion has its advantages — in a regular classroom Bennett could model typical kids and they could learn about difference and acceptance. But I think inclusion only works if your kid is ready for that kind of transition and if the school can meet his needs (see below). However, I find the notion that there’s a stigma associated with a special needs school both disturbing and unfortunate.
I know Bennett, and while it would perhaps help me feel more “normal” to pretend everything’s hunky-dory by integrating him into our community school, it would be a grave disservice to him. My son thrives in a small classroom (1:4 ratio) with trained and dedicated staff , and I fear he would be utterly lost in a classroom with 19 other loud, typical kids, with no guarantee of an aide. As one paper argued, public schools often don’t have the resources, training or supports to teach kids with special needs. So why would I put my perceptions about what other people think (who cares, anyway?) ahead of Bennett’s best interests? That there might be parents out there making that choice for that reason makes me sad.
In making a decision like this I think you have to tune in to the needs of your child and let that guide your decision. If, in a couple of years, Bennett is ready to transition to the community school, then we will reassess. In the meantime, Bennett and I will both continue to do the happy dance every day when the Renfrew bus comes to get him.