For 26 years, the Mico College Child Assessment and Research in Education (CARE) Centre has been the hub for special education in Jamaica and the wider English-speaking Caribbean.
Serving the needs of children with learning disabilities has been its focus since it was established in 1981 and since then, the Kingston-based centre, which is funded by the government, has assessed more than 40,000 special needs children.
Working from the philosophy that each child can learn with expert intervention, the team of clinicians has achieved sterling results, even as they struggle to meet the growing demands for its services.
An intensive programme, which combines remedial and counselling therapy, is used to help children, parents and teachers, to manage the challenging consequences of learning disabilities.
The programme is targeted at children between the ages of four and 12-years old, who are still failing in school despite special interventions provided in the regular education system; children, who may not have an observable disability, but display emotional and behavioural problems, which inhibit learning; children in special schools, who may manifest an additional disability; children 13 to 18, who are experiencing difficulties in reading, language arts, and mathematics; and children, who have a high intelligence quotient (IQ), but are underachieving.
In an interview with JIS News, Director of the centre, Angelita Arnold explains that depending on their needs, children are placed either in a remedial intervention programme or a special class. Currently, there are three remedial intervention groups and one special class at the Kingston-based facility.
Children in the programme attend classes four days for an entire semester. They may attend full or part-time, but the full-time students return to their regular classrooms on Fridays in order to preserve their space in the school system.
According to the Director, the objective of this programme is to help those students, who are lagging behind academically, to improve their studies so that they can return to the classroom at the performance level of their classmates.
Dr. Keturah Wilson, social worker and clinical psychologist, tells JIS News that the success of this intervention is measured by the drastic improvement observed in the students' performance at the end of the period. "Those children do very well when they leave here. Many of those children came here not reading and after one term, children are reading at their grade level," he says.
On any given day, between 8:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., you can find 10 to 15-year olds at the centre participating in the 'special class' for children assessed and identified as slow learners. A parent-supported project, this class offers a highly remedial, broad-based programme, which allows for much individual attention.
The children, some of whom were referred by their teachers, receive intensive classroom instruction in language development, and are exposed to fine motor skills, health and hygiene and counselling sessions with a social worker for two years. After completing the programme at Mico, they are mainstreamed back into their regular classrooms. Older teenagers are placed in a vocational school.
The clinicians also deal with antisocial behaviours such as aggression and other emotional problems that the children may manifest.
Conflict resolution is also reinforced, Dr. Wilson says. "Before long, these are the very children we put back into the schools, who would have come here and learn that there is another way, through conflict resolution and (they can) talk it out, not fight it out," she notes.
In addition, the centre writes Individual Education Plans (IEPs), which offer lesson guidelines and strategies for teachers to use once the children return to the mainstream classrooms. Field service assessments are also done to assist the schools. "When we go out, we are assessing sometimes 56 to 100 children.
Mrs. Arnold says, noting that children are more relaxed in their school environments. She informs that since the start of the year, six of these assessments have been carried out.
Explaining the process for accessing the services of the facility, clinical psychologist, Ghia Townsend, outlines that any concerned adult may make a referral to the centre, but before the application can be processed, a general referral form, a school questionnaire and a medical report provided by the centre, have to be filled out and returned.
These documents are reviewed by an Intake Committee, which decides whether the child will be assessed at the centre or referred to another agency, which will better serve the specific need. Once accepted, a turn-around time of approximately three to four months is applicable.
The intake process involves a battery of in-depth evaluations, which take place over a three-day period. These comprise psychological, educational, speech, language, occupational and physical therapies. Social workers also conduct investigations in the child's family and home situation.
The main testing instruments used by special educators at the Mico CARE Centre to assess the academic functioning of their clients are the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT) and the Mico Diagnostic reading test. Clinical psychologists rely on the WISC -3 and 4 Intelligence Scale to assess the intellectual functioning of children between age 9 and 16, and the McCarthy Scales of Children Abilities for children between 4 and 8 years-old.
The assessment is virtually free to parents, and most are only required to make a contribution of between $500 and $1000, reveals Mrs. Arnold. "There's no way that our parents could pay for that kind of service so the government of Jamaica takes up most of the cost.
What we ask parents to do is to pay $200 for registration. It is a kind of commitment to make sure that they come back with the forms, and then we have a sliding scale for another contribution, which can be anywhere between $500 and probably say $3000, depending on their ability to pay."
"Most of our parents fall in the $500 to $1000 bracket for the assessment process, whereas the process could, when you look at all the different therapists that the child is going to see, cost easily $30,000, even close to $100,000. Of course no child is denied because of their inability to pay," she points out. Children who are wards of the state obtain services free.
The centre has an overall operational budget of $60 million per year inclusive of costs to operate its satellite centres in Mandeville and St. Ann's Bay. Mrs. Arnold tells JIS News that the government funds up to 85 per cent of the budget and the rest comes through other funding agencies such as the Commonwealth Secretariat and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
"We depend on organizations that can sponsor persons. For instance, at this time, our occupational therapist is sponsored by the Commonwealth Secretariat, so that helps cushion things somehow," she informs.
She notes that the Mandeville CARE Centre for example, which operates out of the Ridgemount United Church Hall is "operational to some extent because of a commitment from UNICEF to provide funds for assessing about 500 children over a two-year programme. Had they not come in to give us that kind of support, the number of children we would see in that region would be much less because our budget could just not take care of it all."
According to Mrs. Arnold, the centre's resources are stretched to the limits due to the growing number of children with learning disabilities in the society. "The number is significant. There is not a classroom you can go to in Jamaica where there is not one child without some kind of special need."
In addition to children with learning disabilities and slow learners, the centre also sees children with mild or moderate mental retardation, the generally learning disabled, those with autism, cerebral palsy and other developmental delays.
She noted that the Centre is kept busy all year round with cases from all across the island, even though there are rural satellite centres. "Even though those serve those regions, most of the cases are coming into Kingston, because we are considered the hub of special education in Jamaica," Mrs. Arnold tells JIS News, noting that the centre gets approximately 60 new referrals each week from teachers in early childhood, primary, and secondary schools as well as doctors, community workers, social workers and parents.
The centre in Mandeville offers a full range of services similar to those at Mico, while the facility in St. Ann's Bay provides assessments and conducts workshops for teachers. That facility now operates out of the Beth Jacob's Clinic, but will move to renovated premises on Royes Street in the town, to facilitate increased offerings.
"We expect that by September, that facility will be fully operational," Mrs. Arnold says, adding that Minister of Education and Youth, Maxine Henry-Wilson, has announced plans to establish a diagnostic facility in Montego Bay, St. James to serve the western end of the island.
Mrs. Arnold says that the rural centres "are well used" and the Mandeville centre has a waiting list of more than 250 children. About 36 children are served on a weekly basis for different kinds of services ranging from assessments to full time remedial intervention as well as afternoon tutorial sessions.
The centre is staffed by three special educators, a social worker, and two volunteers from the community, a nurse and a counsellor, two speech therapists and an occupational therapist, which travels in from Kingston.
Donations of $250,000 from the Manchester chapter of the Mico Old Students Association last February, helped to offset a portion of the $3 million that had been budgeted for operating the centre and Mrs. Arnold told JIS News that the money was used to hire a special educator, who works with children between the ages of 6 and 12 in the remedial programme.
As for the future, Mrs. Arnold says that she wants to see more assessment centres established island wide to meet demand. She notes further that society must change their attitude towards children with special needs.
"We need to be looking for the light in our children, for the positive things about them; to see what they can do and encourage, harness and foster their good behaviour and attitudes in them, and making them feel worthy," she notes.
Mrs. Arnold further challenges schools to become more child-friendly and accommodating to children with learning difficulties, tailoring programmes and lesson plans for the classroom, "so our teachers are better able to deal with a wide cross-section of children at different levels in the same classroom."
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