Last days for last resort?
Salisbury's future in doubtNAOMI ARNOLD
It was hard to guess what was going through the mind of Salisbury School's newest student when she arrived at the school on Monday.
About lunchtime, a van pulled off Richmond's Salisbury Rd and drove down the school's long driveway, the girl's head swivelling to look at her new home. Next to her sat her worn-looking mother, holding a pink bag. It was a lot easier to guess what she was feeling.
For so many parents during the past 100 years, that driveway lined with heritage trees has been the last avenue of hope when all other methods of help have been exhausted at home. At Salisbury, thousands of girls have learned living and coping skills alongside adapted school lessons before being sent back out into the world. But now many are worried this year's group will be among the last.
In early May, the Ministry of Education announced it was thinking of closing down the country's four residential schools – two for the intellectually disabled and two that cater for those with "conduct difficulties", or serious behavioural problems – and establishing a new "wraparound" service.
Students would attend their local school, receiving extra support there and at home. Although ministry special education group manager Brian Coffey promises it will be just as good as what's available at Salisbury, the school's supporters have balked at the possibility of closure.
Gisborne's Lisa Stuart says Salisbury has finally given her daughter the support she needs. In 2003, she and her daughter, now 12, survived a car crash that killed the girl's father. Her daughter never recovered emotionally, was withdrawn and shy, couldn't focus or fit in, and was behind her peers throughout her schooling.
Ms Stuart says it was "agonising" to send her to Nelson – but after just one term at Salisbury she noticed an "unbelievable" difference. She now has hope that her daughter won't be a burden on society in the future; that society won't "take one look at her and say `no'."
"It was the best decision I ever made for that girl," she says. "Her speech was so much better, her head was up, her shoulders were back. She had pride in herself. This is a kid who sits on the couch and doesn't interact. We stood back and said `whoa'. She is just shining now."
Getting her away from her community – where her father's drunk-driver killer appears in the papers regularly – has made all the difference. The thought of putting her back into mainstream school is "terrifying", and she doesn't trust the ministry's promises. "I haven't seen any proof yet that they're going to stick to what they're saying. They could pull the rug out from under us. Can we have it signed in blood?
"If it closes there's no hope for all those kids. I'm fighting for my daughter but also for the other kids and the staff as well. I'm going to be terrified if my young baby comes home and goes into high school with a reading and spelling age of 7."
Principal Brenda Ellis has to clear her office table of stacks of research documents when the Nelson Mail visits. She's in the middle of gathering information for the school's submission on the proposal, due in the middle of this month.
Ms Ellis, who has feathery brown hair and a kindly twinkle, says there is no way a mainstream school could replicate Salisbury's two-year, 24-7 living and learning programme, no matter how many support staff are tacked on.
"I think the ministry doesn't have a good grasp of what's happening in a 21st century living and learning environment, [which] I think is one of our greatest strengths," she says. Ms Ellis admits problems arise when the student goes back home – and that Salisbury is addressing it. As well as a new outreach system, which already assesses girls in their home setting, they have a new transition model that they say will cover that danger period from when the girls finish their two years at Salisbury to when they move back into their local schools.
She says that although ministry staff have visited the school to talk about the proposal, they haven't been into the classrooms or seen what happens when the bell rings at the end of the day.
It's "unrealistic and unfair" to expect mainstream teachers to cope with the intellectual, social and emotional difficulties that these young women have. Many have already spent years sitting at the back of the class – not disrupting, not drawing attention to themselves, just quietly failing.
"Our girls often say they feel like they belong here. It's a hard thing to quantify but they usually feel a sense of community and being important. It helps with confidence, because so many come here with none. Most come with years of failure and disengagement in mainstream education."
She says young women with disabilities are the world's most vulnerable people, with some of the girls coming from dysfunctional backgrounds of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
Others come from extremely good, supportive homes. "But they are very public in saying that even with all that lovely nurturing environment and having the ability to access all the facilities and people and expertise, they have still found Salisbury the place that's made the difference.
"Salisbury is for some of these girls a really special place; they feel settled here and secure, they know their needs are met at the level they can succeed at. They can achieve here."
Success takes many forms. At first, 12-year-old Skye Allie Hemara-Glasgow, who's in her second year of study at Salisbury, thought the school "was going to be, like, so boring".
"But it actually wasn't," she says. When she didn't understand things at her "really hard" Hamilton school, she'd ask for the teacher's help. "She said `I'll be there in 10 minutes' and I would just sit there. No teacher came. At the end of the day they would ask what I learned and I would say `Nothing'."
Next door in Room 1, 16-year-old Shanae Yates is writing a letter. "Dear to whom it may concern," she types. Shanae, who is from the far north and has cerebral palsy, also has lively brown eyes and a huge smile. She often gets up at 6.30am to run around the school grounds, and she and Ms Ellis recently completed a 3-kilometre loop around Richmond together.
Next to her, 15-year-old Waimatao Crawford, from Gisborne, is counting out plastic money, learning what she needs to go flatting. Across the table, Ayla Ngawaka, a 15-year-old from Great Barrier Island, is writing about how she was bullied at her previous school – but not at Salisbury, where she's finally made friends.
When Skye Allie and the rest of the girls finish the school day, they go back to the accommodation wings and keep learning, helping out with household tasks and taking part in after-school activities.
It was this after-hours care that made all the difference for Molly McDonnell. A tightly-wound bundle of energy, 15-year-old Molly is in the kitchen when the Nelson Mail arrives at the McDonnell household. She's stripping the skin off potatoes with such vigour that you wonder if there'll be anything left when she's done.
Cooking is something she learned at Salisbury.
But three years ago, being asked to do daily tasks resulted in meltdowns. Molly has a chromosome disorder that puts her on the autistic spectrum, and her parents Helen and Gerard say Salisbury School was "a lifesaver".
From the time Molly was 3 until she was 12, they sought help from 40 separate highly-skilled professionals, trying a piecemeal approach to get their daughter to the stage she's at now, after her two years at Salisbury.
That doesn't include the half-dozen parenting programmes, meetings, autism seminars, and the final straw – a "traumatic" stint in respite care in Christchurch.
Helen McDonnell is now the chair of Salisbury's board of trustees, a position she's held for three years. Their daughter Lucy also has learning difficulties, but is well supported at St Joseph's School. Mrs McDonnell stresses that she's not against mainstreaming; just that Salisbury is the best way to equip these girls to cope with it.
"For us it was a complete turning point," she says. "What [specialists] see is just a snapshot of your child, and they don't actually see what goes on 24-7. "It was a huge amount of effort for her to hold it together at school and then at home it was a completely different picture. We couldn't get that message through to the schools or the services. We were at our wit's end; it was desperation stuff at times." They resorted to filming Molly's behaviour with hidden cameras.
Now, after two years at Salisbury, home life is more pleasant and Mrs McDonnell says Molly is much happier. She attends school at Nayland College's learning support centre, dipping in and out of the mainstream. Her fuse isn't as short, and she can express herself better.
Like so many of the other girls, it was also the first time she was able to make genuine friends. "She suddenly came across other girls who were also struggling in different ways, and she [knew] she wasn't the only one in the world who feels like that," Mrs McDonnell says. "That's how it ends up feeling in mainstream. You're always the one who doesn't fit in, and that message continually repeated for many years doesn't do much for your self-esteem."
Curiously, Salisbury's roll has halved this year, from its maximum of 80 to 44. It's the first time in 10 years that it hasn't been at capacity.
Ms Ellis and Mrs McDonnell suspect the ministry has deliberately quashed enrolments, but Mr Coffey says the drop is based on entrance criteria being applied more "consistently". The ministry hasn't responded to repeated requests for more detail about the numbers of students who've been referred.
Both women are uneasy about the short timeframe the ministry's given them – from being alerted in May, to possible closure at the end of this year – and the lack of detail about how its proposal will work.
"The ministry is quite open around saying `we're not sure yet how this will look, but we expect that as it unfolds we'll get the answers'," Ms Ellis says. "For us that feels like our students are being used as guinea pigs in a new model that may or may not meet their needs."
But Mr Coffey believes things can be done better. The ministry's test case is Auckland's Waimokoia School, a residential school for primary school-aged children with behavioural difficulties that the ministry closed in 2009. It was catering for 40 pupils before; Mr Coffey says they are now reaching 110 students for the same money, at an average cost of $29,000 per child, as opposed to $70,000 to $80,000.
But: "The money's not the thing," he says. "The thing is more kids get good support in their local community [and] school."
He counters the argument of parents such as the McDonnells – who say "been there, done that" – with the fact that funding hasn't been available to make it work before.
"We want this a nationally-available and nationally-led service, but locally available," he says. "Because it doesn't make sense if you're going to have a national support service out there to replicate the overheads of having four organisations running it.
"I'm being honest with people and saying `We don't know the answer; these are the things we need to consider and we'll look carefully at the submissions and we will apply a lot of wisdom and research and understanding of what works for these kids'.
"People often see it from a one-child perspective: their child, which is absolutely right. We need to look at it as an overall approach but then personalised to the child's circumstances. [It's] quite an investment of public funds and we need to make sure it's right from the taxpayer perspective. But more importantly from the child and family perspective."
Ms Ellis and Ms McDonnell argue that the needs of teenage girls with intellectual disabilities are completely different from Waimokoia's cohort.
Nelson College for Girls principal Cathy Ewing is supporting Salisbury's submission, although she says the school has no problem taking the students that might otherwise be at Salisbury.
"It's disappointing that the excellent work that's done by schools such as Salisbury for students who still require support before they enter a mainstream school would no longer be there," she says. "I think it gives them a secure, really supportive environment for students that need that at their point in life. For some of those students coming into a large secondary school can be really quite daunting."
Ms Ellis says she feels confident the ministry will listen, and support from the community has been "amazing". "The message we're getting from principals, teachers, referees, is that `you're needed, you're an incredibly important part of our network'."
Lunchtime at the school, and a dozen girls are gathered around deputy principal Stephen Evans' guitar. He's playing Bruno Mars' Just the Way You Are. They're good, and enthusiastic, and their voices ring out across the school grounds with the kind of reckless abandon that only the young have. "Because girl you're amazing," they sing, "just the way you are."
AT A GLANCE
- The Ministry of Education is reviewing funding for New Zealand's four residential special schools that care for students with behavioural, social and cognitive needs. Two focus on students with complex behaviour needs and two focus on students with disability needs.
- Richmond's Salisbury School, which can cater for 80 students a year, is the only residential education and pastoral care centre for girls with intellectual disabilities in Australasia. It also offers outreach services.
- Salisbury has 11 teachers, seven teacher aides, two counsellors, eight administration staff, a part-time sports co-ordinator, a school health co-ordinator, two kitchen, two laundry and two grounds staff.
- Students are referred there from throughout the country, and are enrolled for up to two years.
- In 2010 the Government spent $84,200 on each student who attended a residential special school, compared with the $7700 spent on students in state and integrated schools. The new wrap-around model would see about $29,000 spent on each student with special needs.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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