The Special Education Unit at the Catherine Hall Primary and Infant School in Montego Bay has been serving the educational needs of primary-age children who have learning and other intellectual challenges.
For more than 40 years, the institution has been providing the appropriate interventions and designing strategies to help special needs children succeed in school and in life.
It is the only government-operated school in St. James that provides special needs education, making it an invaluable institution in the parish. To get admitted, students must be clinically assessed by a psychologist.
The school’s mission is to provide a safe and conducive environment for learning, where all students can reach their full potential.
Catherine Hall Primary and Infant School’s Special Education Unit boasts a team of dedicated professionals who are trained to work with students who have various physical and intellectual disabilities.
Head of the unit, Marsha Rigg-Kerr, said that the five special education trained teachers attached to the department ensure that each of the 59 students under their care makes strides in their education.
They are assisted by three caregivers and five shadows for students who need additional support.
Currently, seven autistic children, 23 students with learning disorders, 12 students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and 19 with intellectual disability are enrolled at the institution.
“All our teachers are special education trained. We have always been dedicated to the students in whatever it is we are doing for them, whether academic or teaching them social skills, moral values and other things that they need to get along in society,” she shared.
Rigg-Kerr noted that one of the most notable features of the unit is its commitment to providing individualised attention and support to students.
She explains that the school recognises that special needs students require a unique approach to their education, and thus, teachers provide a personalised instructional plan for them.
This plan takes into consideration the student’s strengths, weaknesses and learning style.
“We try to use strategies that take in both the visual and auditory. So, we use a variety of strategies according to how we see it working for the different students. So, what would work for one set of students may not work for the others. Most of them are visual learners, so we try to employ strategies that work along that line,” she shares.
The special education educator states that the institution utilises the inclusion model, where special needs students spend time with their non-special needs peers.
By so doing, students are integrated into general education classrooms after some time for them to receive the necessary curricular adaptations, as well as sit external examinations.
“Yearly, we have that happening where we work with them, then mainstream them back into the regular classroom. We may mainstream a child to grade two, grade three going onwards and they are doing well,” she noted.
“This school is not a special education school but we have a unit, so we cater to students with special needs but we do inclusion at this school. So, the students are expected to be included in the regular classroom space after a while. They are expected to do the regular exams like everybody else,” Rigg-Kerr points out.
The students are usually assessed to see whether they will need a reader, prompter or writer to assist them in their external examinations.
Rigg-Kerr shares that over the years, the Catherine Hall Special Education Unit has produced many successful students, who have gone on to excel in their chosen fields.
“I have been here since 2004 and we have had several success stories where we have students who have done well, where we have mainstreamed them in the primary department, where they have gone on to secondary institutions such as Cornwall [College], William Knibb, Rusea’s High, and they are doing well today,” she boasted.
“They have good jobs and even those who did not go to traditional high schools, they have turned out to be good citizens of Jamaica,” Kerr-Rigg continued.
Impressed with the continued success of the Special Education Unit, grade-four teacher and grade supervisor, Kerry-Ann Reid-Bucknor, says she has seen the transformation of students, who have mainstreamed into the regular classroom.
Parents are also giving high praises to the dedicated efforts of the academic staff attached to the Catherine Hall Primary, Infant and Special Education Unit.
One such parent, Shanice Sloley-Campbell, shared that her 10-year-old son’s progress is a testament to the unit’s dedication to inclusivity and ensuring that every student has the opportunity to learn and grow.
“The treatment towards my son is wonderful. He is learning and he is getting the personal help that he needs from the teachers there. He wasn’t even able to spell a word or identify words or numbers and he is able to do that now. He is not 100 per cent there but really coming on,” she said.
Reid-Bucknor, who has been at the institution for 20 years, said the unit has proven that with the right resources and support, students with special needs can achieve academic and personal success.
“Since being here, I have always admired how the unit has operated. I have gotten students more than once that have been mainstreamed from the unit and they have always been students who are excellent at reading,” the educator said.
Acting Principal, Kay-Esther Malcolm, said the Special Education Unit continues to operate at a high standard and consistently implements additional training for staff to ensure all students receive the support they need.
She said the unit is at the forefront of special needs education in the parish, as “it has really been helping many of the children who may not be able keep up with the children in the regular [classroom]”.