Case study: Hamilton North School

JONATHAN CARSON
Last updated 07:38 22/09/2012
Waikato Times

Hamilton North School is a learning centre for children with intellectual disabilities of varying degrees yet is still graded by the National Standards. Principal Tony Kane explains the situation and how hard the staff work under extraordinary circumstances.

Hamilton North School
BEN CURRAN/Fairfax NZ Zoom
Mereana Macdonald.

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Toby's pale blue eyes look up from the table where he is working with crayons and dye.

He scans the art studio, with bright-coloured self portraits and paper mache on the walls.

Moments later the five-year-old is sitting in a circle with his classmates, swinging his limbs to sing-a-long music.

He is blind, deaf and has a blood clotting disorder, but almost always smiles.

Within the pale blue exterior of another classroom Mark, 17, is using an iPad to point at pictures of animals so that they make a sound.

With his severe intellectual and physical disabilities it is a "miracle" he's able to engage at this level.

And then there's Mereana, 8, who started at school in a wheelchair.

She learned to walk during her new entrant year and shocked her own mother, and reduced much of the audience to tears, when she stepped onto the stage to accept her certificate at the school's first prize giving.

Toby, Mark and Mereana are three of 112 pupils at Hamilton North School. They all have similar stories to share, but on the Government's books, they are all failing.

One hundred per cent of pupils - aged five to 21 - are well below national standards in reading, writing and maths.

''It doesn't look too good unless people get an idea of what we're about,'' principal Tony Kane said.

Hamilton North School is a special school. The pupils all have an intellectual or physical disability.

Some have both, some have multiple, many are at the most severe end of the spectrum.

They are children with the highest levels of need - the one per cent.

''For unknown reasons they just can't retain information; they can't read, write or those sorts of things. There's not just one disability, there's a whole array of them.''

Autism, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and global delay are some of the most common conditions.

Education goals for these students, set by teachers, parents and therapists at the beginning of each year, include learning to wash their hands, going to the toilet on time and learning the alphabet.

However, the school's national standards data is being released alongside every other New Zealand school.

''We've talked about national standards, we know they're there and we know that, due to the intellectual disability of our students, none of them are actually going to attain level one,'' Mr Kane said.

''It's disappointing that we should be lumped in with all those other schools.''

The school does work within the New Zealand curriculum, but adapts it for each child via Individual Education Programmes.

''We used to have quite a number of goals but now we've actually narrowed it down to specific goals that we think, as a group, the student can attain.
''There's no use having pie in the sky stuff, you've got to make them very small, but attainable.''

An important part of this is the school's integration programme, which aims to foster pupils' social and functional development.

This involves them joining in mainstream classes and regularly taking part in normal social activities, such as grocery shopping, ten-pin bowling, and the annual school camp.

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The school employs 83 staff - 30 teachers, 46 support workers and seven therapists to care for the roll of 112.

Mr Kane said the school's national standards results do not reflect the selfless dedication of his staff, and the often extraordinary progress they make with the kids.
''You're caring for them hygenically, physically - guiding them in their programmes. You're putting a huge amount of work in,'' he said.

''But you're doing it for the love of these students, and they are tremendous kids. They do give you a lot back, but not intellectually-wise, but I'd suppose you say warmth, passion, and they are a loving group of kids.''

Meanwhile, in another classroom, Tristan, 13, is learning how to use a fork to pick up food and feed himself.

It is a life changing lesson, but national standards don't measure that. He's failing, too.

- Waikato

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