School axings 'an experiment'

MARIKA HILL
Last updated 05:00 03/06/2012
Jessie Woods, 14, with reading teacher Nicola Conza, has flourished at Salisbury School.
MARION VAN DIJK/Fairfax NZ
TRANSFORMED: Jessie Woods, 14, with reading teacher Nicola Conza, has flourished at Salisbury School.

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Intellectually impaired teenagers are pleading for the Government not to close their school.

The Government informed Salisbury School in Nelson last month that it was reviewing the school's future and it could be closed at the end of the year.

Three other special education schools are also on the chopping block as the Education Ministry eyes savings of up to $6 million.

It is part of a Government move to provide community wrap-around services for children and teenagers with intellectual or behavioural difficulties.

But Salisbury School's parents say the review is rushed and the research the decision is based on irrelevant.

Kelly Woods' daughter Jessie, 14, started at the school this year, but her transformation has been "amazing".

Normally anxious and quiet, Jessie now has best friends for the first time in her life and is the class counsellor.

"She is showering on her own, using a knife and fork, she is brushing her own teeth, she's dressing herself and her handwriting has improved. I know these don't sound big but they are huge to us," Woods said.

Jessie has a rare chromosome deletion syndrome that causes intellectual impairment, autism and anxiety.

Woods said she felt her daughter was a guinea pig in yet another Government education experiment.

"I will get really, really upset if all these gorgeous, vulnerable children will be put back into mainstream."

Woods said she feared the decision had been rushed, after just six weeks of consultation.

"I feel in my heart this is something I have to fight for."

A former student has set up a Facebook page, "Save our School", and students have been rallying for support.

Also under review are McKenzie Residential School and Halswell Residential College in Christchurch and Westbridge Residential School in Auckland.

About 115 students with complex educational and behavioural needs are affected by the review.

Ministry special education manager Brian Coffey said a wrap-around service drew on a wide body of knowledge of what worked best for students. The new approach would allow more students to receive extra support, he said.

Currently, each student at a special residential school costs $80,000 annually. The proposed changes would cut the cost to about $29,000 a child. Based on these costs, the Government would save $5.8m a year if it chose to shut all four schools.

Coffey also questioned the long-term effectiveness of residential schools, saying the gains made by learners who attended special schools were difficult to sustain once the student graduated.

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However, Salisbury School board of trustees chair Helen McDonnell denied this. She implored the Government to rethink its review, which she said was based on irrelevant research.

The research looked at boys with behavioural problems attending mainstream schools – not intellectually impaired teenage girls.

Salisbury School was the last resort for many parents who had seen their children fail at traditional schools, she said.

A range of students from throughout New Zealand attended, including girls with autism, foetal alcohol syndrome, and intellectual impairment.

Although Salisbury School was more expensive, McDonnell said it saved money down the track as graduates had the confidence to find jobs.

Her 15-year-old daughter attended the school for two years.

"For us, it was a real turning point that we wanted to equip our daughter with skills for life. I couldn't see that happening in the mainstream school setting."

She had tried using wrap-around services for her daughter in the past, but it left the family exhausted, she said.

The consultation process closes on June 15 and a final decision is expected in October.

- Sunday Star Times

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