Antigua St John's - Children in Antigua and Barbuda with special needs are facing a bleak future, as the only educational facility on the island that caters directly to their developmental needs gets set to close at the end of June.
Alex Wharton, principal of the Visionaries For Christ Academy (VFCA), made the unwelcome announcement this past weekend, speaking on the popular "Big Issues" programme.
On Tuesday, during an in-studio appearance onthe Colin Sampson Show, Wharton made it clear that the looming closure applies to the Special Needs and Primary department only. The Early Childhood Development Center will continue as an outreach of Prayer Faith & Encouragement Ministries.
The impending closure of the Special Needs and Primary department of VFCA creates a crisis for parents already shouldering the extra responsibilities of caring for a child with special educational needs. Outside of VFCA, the required educational services are not formally available within the borders of Antigua & Barbuda. Nowhere within the government-run educational structure can children with special educational needs access the developmental services they need.
Wharton, a trained and university-qualified teacher of special needs children, champions the concept of educating children with special needs alongside their "normal" counterparts. The benefits, she maintains, are immeasurable for both the "special" and the "regular" classroom populations.
On Tuesday, she delivered a candid synopsis of her so-far fruitless efforts to arrive at a workable accommodation with the Ministry of Education. The ministry appears to suffer from a "blind spot" on the subject of special needs education, and the joint failure to engineer any kind of public/private partnership on the matter may have brought an end to a gallant effort by VFCA to serve the needs of special children
Readers are invited to visit the CARIBARENA.COM video archive to view excerpts from the conversation.
Fully committed to her lifelong calling to education, and even more passionately devoted to serving the developmental needs of special children, Wharton is not prepared to take the current crisis lying down. Declaring that the solutions to what only seems to be an insoluble problem are readily available, the determined educator is pressing on with an initiative to mobilize parents of special needs children nationwide.
Only by combining their forces and making their presence felt, she said, can the parents of children with special educational needs concentrate the attention of the education ministry on this most under-served segment of the population. Accordingly, she invites parents of children with special education needs to contact her at her via email:
and join in the movement to secure the educational future for their children.
Noting that parents of children with special educational needs tend to be reluctant to make what amounts to a public spectacle of their children's plight, the VFCA principal urged them to overcome their diffidence in the interest of their children's welfare.
While hailing the recent establishment of a Special Education Council, Wharton questioned whether the appropriate skill sets have been brought to bear on the problem. She observed, however, that a small but unknown number of trained special education teachers exist within the system. In addition, six trained special education teachers recently returned to the country after completing their studies in Cuba.
These teachers, though, are scattered throughout the educational system - and it is unclear whether they are exercising their special skills in the classroom in any effective manner. In the absence of any screening mechanism, many pupils with special educational needs go unrecognised, preventing the education ministry from focussing attention and resources on what is a "hidden" problem.
Stressing the impossibility of delivering special educational services in every school, Wharton called on the Ministry of Education either to join in a public/private partnership with a private sector provider. In this connection, Wharton points to significant amounts of space made available in certain primary schools as a result of the move from the junior secondary to full secondary education.
Another alternative might be to designate a suitable government primary institution as a center for children with special educational needs. This would permit the education ministry to concentrate all its resources in the right place.
As things stand, however, Wharton is hoping to reduce the degree of public illiteracy on the subject of developing children with special educational needs. She pointed out that to leave any portion of the nation's education needs unmet is to deny a child of his or her rights as a citizen in a modern country.