Mother scolds education ministry for lack of focus on special needs children
A concerned mother has spoken out about a lack of inclusiveness for children with special needs in Bermuda’s public education system.
Cyrelah Somner, the mother of a middle-school child with Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterised by mild to moderate intellectual disability, claimed that all three public schools her child attended focused primarily on the needs of mainstream students.
Ms Somner, who has offered to be a voice for parents of children with special needs, told The Royal Gazette: “I don’t feel that the Ministry of Education has created a culture of inclusiveness.
“The ministry’s special education is far below other countries’ standards.”
Her child, Exodus, 12, had attended West End Primary School, was transferred to Paget Primary School and, in the 2019-20 school year, graduated to Dellwood Middle School.
She said that the Parent Teacher Association at the schools mainly discussed issues that are irrelevant to her child, and that some of the ministry’s special needs programmes are mislabelled as the Autism Spectrum Disorder Classroom as they include students with numerous intellectual disabilities.
Ms Somner added that when her child graduated to Dellwood Middle School, she was sent an orientation pack geared to children in the mainstream system and that the last school year was plagued by scheduling challenges and a teacher shortage.
She said: “All three schools, West End Primary, Paget Primary and Dellwood Middle School, while they do have PTA meetings that are all-inclusive, for the most part all the meetings are based on curriculum-type issues which do not apply to my child.
“As for the ASD class, the name should be changed to be more inclusive of children of all disabilities. A lot of the children in the class haven’t been diagnosed, so it’s not even like you can say that half of the students have autism. At the end of the day, the name of the classroom needs to change. My child is not on the autism spectrum. Fragile X Syndrome is a genetic disorder.”
Ms Somner wanted to make clear that she was not disappointed with the special needs education provided by the teachers.
She described the ASD Classroom at Paget Primary School under special aid teacher Freda Trimm as a “godsend” and that she had seen a marked improvement in her daughter’s development after only two weeks in attendance.
She said that is also happy with her daughter’s teacher at Dellwood Middle School. However, last year the school suffered from a lack of teachers and there were ongoing scheduling issues owing to students being transferred to the school after the closure of TN Tatem Middle School in February.
She added: “Her teacher at Dellwood has been good. I was very pleased with the quality the teaching in the Functional Skills classroom, even over Covid-19. She has been accommodating. However, I was disappointed because there was an influx of students from TN Tatem and they spent half their time trying to reschedule, and they didn’t have enough teachers.
“I also believe that para-educators can be used more effectively. They are used as babysitters or caregivers, but I think they can be used more to help to facilitate learning.”
Ms Somner said she wanted parents of children with disabilities to advocate for their children.
She added: “If you are afraid to speak out, I am willing to advocate on your behalf and provide support.”
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education said: “Due to school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic, the normal transition process did not occur.
“This impacted every child in the public-school system who was due to transition into a special education programme.”
The Royal Gazette published a story last month about the parents of a child on the severe end of the autism spectrum who were refused the right by the Ministry of Education for their child to repeat a year at Paget Primary School.
The parents said that while their son was aged 11, he had the mental age of a five-year-old and was ill-prepared to transition to middle school, particularly in light of disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
They, too, were sent an orientation package from Dellwood Middle School designed for mainstream students.
Kalmar Richards, the Commissioner of Education, wrote at the time: “We care about the development and progress of every child in the public-school system, and it is our priority to ensure the best programme placement is made for students, especially our students with special needs.
“The department has an automated enrolment process for students who transition from Primary 6 to Middle School, M1. This student was automatically enrolled at Dellwood Middle School because Dellwood is the feeder school for Paget Primary; but more importantly, the designated middle school for all ASD students who transition from the primary to middle-school level.”