Mainstream or special school? Our decision for the latter years of high school

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.


16 thoughts on “Mainstream or special school? Our decision for the latter years of high school

  1. This article has made my day ! I found my self nodding, frowning, sighing, and smiling as I read it. My son who has DS is almost 17 now. I guess our departure from mainstream school was made easier by the lack of quality in his IEP by year nine, in fact his IEP didn’t exist! But nevermind, we moved on. My son now attends a post school disability program two days a week. It has been an “interesting” transition, and not without it’s initial hiccups, but overall things are progressing really well.

    I hope your Fraser’s transition continues to go well 🙂 Would love to hear an update from you in the next few months.

  2. Never easy in Amsterdam, is it? My son with DS is 12 and will be graduating from his catholic Primary School this year. He had a great time and I will never regret the decision to mainstream him in Primary. We had previously planned on sending him to our local catholic High School as the natural progression, but as the funding has been cut by more than 50%, there is no aid-time and no adaptation worth mentioning, no special units for Maths and English and he would just be expected to “do or die”, we are now absolutely over the moon that an amazing school for children with Mild to Moderate Disabilities has accepted him! Instead of working towards the HSC (a whole load of good that would do him!) this school works towards Life After School (cooking classed, work experience, Shakespear as an acting class instead of having to read it, African Drumming, Hip Hop, a Gym, a Pool, high but realistic expectations, a big emphasis on developing his independence, 48 staff to 120 studens…and that’s what we need. 160 people applied for 20 spots – sad, isn’t it? There is such an ever-growing need for schools like this one but instead of investing in this and our childrens future more and more money is pulled out.

    Is Fraser still in his school clothes? Might as well leave him in them now…;)

    • Hi Christina, thanks for sharing your story – sounds like you have found a fabulous opportunity for your son. Fraser is out of his school clothes, BUT in the only set of home clothes he will wear!!

  3. Hi,
    I have just read your story and it is a mirror image of what we are going through too. Taylah has just turned 16. Is so happy at her present school. For us to put her in a special school , it means moving a very long way . Hard decisions were thought over for months .We have decided that with her after school care and support at her current school to leave it as is for now. The right decision ? Who knows , only time will tell.We will have to move from the country town eventually so she can be more independent but for now the decision has been made. As you said , each day is a new decision and we can only play it day to day and hope we make the right decision for our gorgeous kids. Just wanted to let you know , Taylah got a Deputy Principals award and an Excellence award for music .So very proud of her. If i knew how I would post a picture.
    All the best to you and your family

    • Hi Raelene

      Thank you for sharing your story and congratulations to Taylah. It is such a day to day thing and transitions need so much planning – which I routinely forget!!

      Kind Regards,

      Fiona Place | Writer | Down Syndrome NSW E W M 0409 826 551 P +61 2 9841 4444 F +61 2 9841 4400 80 Weston Street, Harris Park NSW 2150 | PO Box 9117 Harris Park NSW 2150

      Blog: Disability and Culture

      DISCLAIMER: This email and its attachments are confidential to the named addressee. They are subject to copyright and must not be reproduced without our written consent.

  4. well I have read the article and I loved every bit of that and I would like to say about my experiences when I was in a mainstream primary school I had so much difficulty in speech therapy
    I remembered my mum saying would I be suited in mainstream or special school she made a decision of putting me in a special school and I have proved to myself and to my mum that it can
    be easy to overcome of who you are yes I was in a special school I have done my high school certificate and transition into post school through the house with no steps without these people who supported me I would have gone into a Institution or group home and now I am in a ISLI program to help me to have Independance and structure and to have a life of my own
    to frasier whatever you do you will make your mum proud of you the successes and the determination you have got to go through life is so amazing the world is your oyster

  5. My Daughter was mainstreamed till High school when I then made the decision to put her in the local support unit for her senior years to make friendships with children with other disabilities. Worst thing I ever did. She is in year 9 now but as as the lady above mentioned – an IEP just doesn’t exist. Now I just can’t wait for her to finish school. She is happy there and yes she has made friends etc, but academically she has gone backwards and here I sit in a rock and a hard place..feeling helpless at such limited alternatives. I sincerely hope it works out for Fraser.

    • Thank you or sharing your experience Julie, I am sad it hasn’t worked out for your daughter and you surely are in a hard place, I guess I can only see what happens with Fraser and hope I have made the right decision!

  6. Pingback: Why We Don’t Use the Word “Retarded” and Why You Shouldn’t Either | 'Enjoying the Hi-5s of Autism'

  7. My son Dylan is now 21 and completed his whole schooling in our local govt school, (mainstream class) with an aid most of the time (there was another funded student in the class as well). We considered moving him to a support class when he transitioned from primary school but he would have had to travel 1 hour to get to the closest high school with a support class and I was reasonably happy that his needs were being met locally. There were some behaviour problems early but Dylan completed year 12 being a much loved member of his cohort of about 25 kids. These kids still come to visit when they are home, take him out to the pub and maintain social contact through things like facebook and Skype.
    I still question myself about him being very socially isolated as he doesn’t mix with any other people with a disability. This is mainly due to the geographical isolation of our small town. Dylan has just finished a transition to work program and is currently seeking work and continues to be involved in an extensive work experience program.
    Is he socially isolated? I dont think so. Maybe this may change in the future and we will then explore other opportunities socially as it becomes necessary. My attitude is why fix it if it isn’t broken.

    • Hi Andrea

      Thank you for sharing your experience – I agree if it ain’t broken why fix – and I guess it is at times very hard to know which way to turn. Sounds like you made the right decision for Dylan and it has worked out well. I think it is a very personal decision and for us – today being Fraser’s last day at Cranbrook – a tough one – but I think given the extent of our son’s disability we think he needs more peers so we are changing for the last three years of high school. I admire your choice and am so glad it worked for you – Dylan has no doubt benefited enormously from staying in the mainstream.

  8. Thankyou Fiona for your story. My daughter is 6. But I do have a close relationship with a family have a much older daughter with Downs. She is amazing at what she can do practically but because she been ‘nutured’ and protected she has very little resiliance and lacks emotional coping skills. This has made it difficult for her to become ‘independant’ of her protective bubble. I have realised it is dangerous to shield our kids from the real world. And as typical children and young adults, they need to stand on their own two feet emotionally. We do them no favours by not allowing them to take some risks. I have also done a 180 regarding my daughters school options. She will go wherever she can achieve the best outcomes for her future and that includes a special school.

  9. It’s such a relief to read these stories and realise that other people are going through exactly the same thoughts and decision regarding our children with Down Syndrome. Sometimes , Living remote you feel like there is no one else like you. Thank goodness for the internet. Brings me back into the world and i get a lot of different prospectives that I would usually miss out on. Thanks all.

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