Fraser, our middle so with Down syndrome is reaching the latter high school years, the more academic years, and it seems to us as parents there is a decision to be made. Should we stay in the mainstream setting he has been a part of since the age of four or should we transition him to a support unit for students with a moderate intellectual disability?
As many parents of a child with an intellectual disability will know, the debate surrounding whether to mainstream or choose a ‘special’ setting is fraught. There are no easy answers. Furthermore even at the best of times transitions can be difficult. In my case simply getting Fraser to school on some days has taken an enormous amount of planning, patience and finessing. Not to mention the further assistance required by staff to cajole him out of the car, then back into his shoes and socks, and into the classroom without taking any major detours. In other words transitions are not to be taken lightly.
Fraser has been at his current school since pre-school and is now sixteen and in Year 9. That’s twelve years in the one environment. Twelve years at an institution that has, on the whole, proudly engaged with him and worked to ensure he has the social and educational attributes necessary for a ‘successful’ life.
Of course there have been times the school has struggled to meaningfully include him, struggled to understand their role in his upbringing, but overall he has blossomed.
Why we chose a mainstream school?
We chose a mainstream environment because we wanted our three boys to attend the same school. To have the same opportunities. We chose his particular school (a non-government school), because it was willing to accept when Fraser at a time when the public system was not actively encouraging a mainstream education for children with disabilities.
The non-government school was willing to employ an aide full –time and Fraser was included in a mainstream class from pre-school to Year 6. From years 7 to 9 however he has spent much of his time in a small support unit with one other boy with Down syndrome. It is a very individualized and very nurturing program and he does still mix with the boys in his year but in some ways we are beginning to think it is too nurturing. Too nurturing in that he spends the majority of his time with staff who ‘love’ him and possibly too far away from the world of disability and his peers.
Too far away from disability? Yes, it may seem odd given our strong desire to have him included, but now we also realize he need peers similar to himself. That he needs to be just one of the group and not someone special. Not someone who is special in the mainstream. That he now needs to find his own way of being special within a group of his peers.
During this time of intense questioning about Fraser’s future educational and social needs for Years 10 – 12 it comes to our attention that the local public high school support unit for children with a moderate intellectual disability has turned itself around 180 degrees and is now a centre of excellence. And fortunately for us, because Fraser attends an after school program at our local community centre he knows many of the children who attend the school.
Could it be we ask ourselves time for Fraser to join them? One sticking point, one thing that holds us back is that is Fraser loves where he is. Loves it to the depths of his heart. But after discussions with the teacher who runs the unit we decide to let Fraser spend a day there and see how it goes. He seems to enjoy himself but later when I suggest he swap schools he shakes his head vehemently and in order to let me know how he feels begins to sleep in his school uniform. Blazer, tie, shirt . . . everything but his shoes! As though if he doesn’t take it off Mum can’t change anything.
We are in a quandary, what is best for Fraser? As we mull over the issues, including how expensive an education at a non-government school has now become we begin to realize his current school has probably given him everything it can.
He has been included, has been educated in a mainstream environment for as long as possible, has been nurtured. Furthermore I will always say the support at the school made it possible for me to have a third child. Without any family I relied on the staff so much in those early years and they did rise to the challenge day after day. But now the boys are older we have probably seen all the benefits we are likely to see and perhaps there are benefits to be had by changing.
The staff at Fraser’s current school appreciate our dilemma and are supportive of whatever decision we make. However it isn’t quite that straightforward to gain a place at the support unit – not only does Fraser have to be classified as having a moderate intellectual disability but the intake panel have to accept his enrolment and there has to be a place. I tackle each of these obstacles one by one, and finally, finally we are offered a place. We are as thrilled as when we chose his current school.
Fraser is now going to spend some time transitioning and does seem happy on the days he visits his new school – but I worry he sees it as an excursion and not something that will eventually be permanent. I don’t know how he will react when it comes to leaving the place he has known since pre-school. To not wearing his beloved Blazer and tie.
But I do know he has to transition out of his current school sometime and that bringing it forward is probably in his best interests. After all if we leave him where he is, he will be nineteen when he has to say goodbye and by then it could be even harder, especially if he is not integrated into the world of disability.