JTA president bats for special needs students, early childhood

NEGRIL, Westmoreland — Arguing that special needs students are now being foisted onto schools whose curricula are not equipped to deal with them, newly installed president of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) Leighton Johnson is pushing for at least 28 facilities to be established across the country where these students can be assessed.

He also wants to see more teachers trained to work with the country’s youngest students. These calls have been fuelled by his view that both the special and early childhood sectors have “been treated like the bastard child of the education system”.

While he conceded that some work is being done to address the needs of special students, he said a lot more is required.

“There is still the urgent need for additional diagnostic centres across our country. I suggest that at least two schools be identified in each parish — one at the primary and one at the secondary level — to be used as diagnosis centres,” Johnson said, even as he acknowledged the work being done by The Mico University College Child Assessment and Research in Education (CARE) Centre, and Church Teachers’ College.

“Plants should be retrofitted with the necessary resources to teach students with special learning needs. This can be done, it can be done!” he insisted.

He was delivering the president’s address during the official opening of the JTA’s 59th Annual Conference and investiture ceremony at Royalton Negril Resort and Spa Monday night.

The issue of public schools’ readiness to accommodate students with special needs surfaced earlier this year when the families of at least two students raised concerns about them not being allowed to enroll in the high schools for which they had obtained passes. In late July, executive director at the National Education Trust (NET) Latoya Harris-Ghartey gave a commitment that all infrastructure development projects for schools will comply with the Disabilities Act. Under the Disabilities Act 2014 Accessibility Checklist, public buildings should be outfitted with the requisite amenities to enable easy access by these persons. However, Johnson is concerned about the availability of educators.

“Our country is in desperate need of additional schools and programmes that are staffed with suitably qualified teachers to address these special education needs of our students. These institutions are few and far apart, thus making them inaccessible for students who are in need of specialised education. Additionally, there are those who were born with different disabilities and have to be hidden in their homes because of the lack of adequate programmes for them to be enrolled in,” he stressed.

He argued that the teaching material now being used does not meet the needs of these students.

“This context has resulted in students with exceptionalities of varying kinds and degrees [being] forced to operate in the regular classroom. While I am confident in our teachers’ ability to deliver the curriculum under difficult circumstances, our teachers are not necessarily equipped to treat with the delicate learning needs of these students who are often undiagnosed,” Johnson said.

“These students cannot function in the regular classroom, and our teachers are held to account when these students do not perform,” he added.

Focusing on early childhood education, the Muschett High School principal called for an increase in the number of trained teachers in government-run schools at that level, as well as support to get these institutions certified by the Early Childhood Commission. Accreditation, he said, can be daunting.

“Meeting the standards of the Early Childhood Commission can be an intimidating process. There is the need for support, in this regard, to get every early childhood institution certified and operating under the recognised and approved standards. There must be an increase in the budgetary allocation to the Early Childhood Commission to be adequately staffed to take on the task of assisting and monitoring every basic school to meet the educational standards. This is urgent and necessary,” he said.

“If we get it right from the start then many of the learning issues that persist through the years and through the grades will be addressed. …Every study that has been commissioned speaks to the importance of early childhood education. Every speech or address which is made surrounding education speaks to the importance of early childhood education — every single one. Admittedly, there have been significant gains with regards to the structure and monitoring of the sector, however we are still a far way off and we must be deliberate in our approach,” Johnson appealed.