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Special needs are an ever growing concern in today's society and by extension, in the schools. In this paper I will aim to not only take a look at needs and special needs in general but as it relates to the school I work at. By the end of this paper I intend to have considered and made plans for meeting the needs of the students who use my school library, regardless of whether those needs are disability related or not.
By definition, special needs students are any people who do not conform to the image of the average learner. This group includes students who have confirmed physical or mental disabilities and also those who are particularly talented or have above average intelligence. There is another, third group of students who are considered special needs cases and it includes people who are in danger of developing problems and display traits that indicate that could, if left unchecked, cause learning and behavioural problems in their future. Special needs can be broken into two sections; High incidence (Problems/ issues which are more often found within the school system) and Low incidence which is less frequent in occurrence. Both High Incidence and low incidence needs can be further broken down.
High Incidence disabilities Include:
Speech and Language disorders
Emotional and behavior disorders
Low Incidence Needs Involve:
Complete blindness or deafness
Physical or mental disorders
Terminal health issues
Special needs in Trinidad and Tobago
When referring to the Special needs situation in Trinidad and Tobago, to CR Reynolds and E. Fletcher Jantzen (2002) said that in 1993 13.1% of special needs children were not in school, 5.8% are in preschool, 5.1% are attending special schools, 6.7 % are in other facilities, while the majority, at 67.2 percent are in mainstream schools in which no special provisions have been made to meet their needs. They went on to say that this implies that only 2.1% of students with special needs are in mainstream schools with adequate support.
The National report on the development of education in Trinidad and Tobago, published in 2004 acknowledged the degree to which students with special needs are present in our schools. They reported their statistics as follows:
50 % 0f the school population has sensory disabilities, mainly problems with their vision which remain undetected and hamper their ability to reach their full educational potential.
25% are intellectually below normal
10% have learning disabilities
2% are gifted and talented
This leaves us to imply that 13% of students are unencumbered by sensory, learning or mental disabilities and are of average talent.
The Trinidad and Tobago government has since then put policies in place to address the aforementioned problem and to include and support all students within the education system.
St. Augustine Girls' High School
Founded on the 19th September 1950, SAGHS is one of five Secondary Schools run by the Presbyterian school board in Trinidad & Tobago. SAGHS offers a seven year program to girls between the ages of eleven and nineteen years of age. The Students at this school come from diverse backgrounds are selected from the 97th percentile of all girls writing the SEA exam each year. The school currently has a population of 713 students and 46 teachers including 4 deans and 5 heads of department.
The School's Mission, Vision and Values
Motto: "Per Ardua Ad Astra" - Excellence through Hard Work
Vision: "We are building not only the Ideal School of which we all dream but strong Christian characters which will withstand whatever temptations and tests the future may bring. The school stands for scholarship, aspiration, goodness, happiness, service and success."
Part 1: "â€¦â€¦..ensuring a safe student-centered climate, which nurtures articulate, confident, empowered individuals who as critical thinkers and life-long learners will make a positive impact on society."
Part 2: "â€¦â€¦.Providing a modern physical and technological environment with a quality-based instructional programme using innovative and up-to-date strategies and methods."
The schools special needs: Past, Present and Future
In the past the school has had multiple students with Physical disabilities. In the draft proposal for the high school's expansion project (2004) it was reported that at the time, 7 students with identified special needs were attending classes at SAGHS. These students included 2 with severe hearing loss/ profound deafness, 2 who with missing limb. As the government of Trinidad and Tobago has moved toward more inclusive education for all, SAGHS now has and will continue to welcome an increasing number of students with learning disabilities. Unfortunately some of these cases have only been suspected by teachers but not confirmed by medical professionals. Currently (2010) the school has students with the following special needs:
Information processing disorders
Asperger's syndrome (Autism spectrum disorder)
Emotional Disorders (Depression, Stress and others)
In addition to these needs, the school also has several students who are very gifted and talented in a wide range of areas and foreign exchange students who speak very little English.
Past arrangements for students with special needs
While the school is academically demanding and actively tries and meets the needs of the gifted and talented students, pupils who are physically and mentally challenged have not been quite so catered to. Although the school has had at least one wheelchair bound student in the past, the school is largely wheelchair inaccessible 2 floors of classroom space and no ramps or lifts to accommodate such pupils. The library is on the first floor and is only accessed via stairs. The aisles between the shelves are too narrow for a wheel chair and the shelves themselves are indeed too tall for even some able bodied students to reach due to their height. The Stair case to the library is winding and can be dangerous for people with sure footing and even more so for students with sensory or muscular disorders.
As for students with learning and hearing or vision problems, teachers have tried to accommodate them by adjusting seating arrangements, facing students to accommodate lip reading, using video and audio during some classes and giving time concessions during examinations. Teachers have also been liaising with parents and the students themselves who have reading difficulties and information processing problems to try to find a way to help the child keep up with the demanding schoolwork and improve their learning skills.
Future plans for the library
The school has presented a proposal for the building of a new wing to the school which will, along with classrooms, offices and laboratories, house a new library. The future library has been allotted a larger more open space (135' x 49') when compared to the current space which consists of multiple rooms which in total measure 74' x 30'. The library will be on the ground floor and nearer to the main school building in order to be more accessible to all. This new space should enable us to create a library environment that will better meet the needs of all students and staff at SAGHS.
Recommendations for the new library
In addition to a designated emergency exit, only one other door to the outside should be present in the design of the library. These doors should be built without a threshold to allow easy access by physically challenged students. The door should have a clear panel to allow for visibility. It should not require the use of hands to open but students should be able to simply push the door to enter.
Industrial carpet or heavy-duty vinyl should be place on the floors to ensure silence as footwear such as high heels (teachers and staff) leg braces and other orthopedic devices can be noisy. Special flooring will ensure silence and also give a non-slip surface.
Sound-proofing is necessary to keep out the noise from surrounding classrooms and ensure a peaceful study environment for students. This can be achieved through using acoustic drop ceilings and acoustically treated doors.
The library should be equipped with adequate and working light fixtures as well as blinds and windows that can be opened to allow for the entrance of light and air. The windows however should be secured (perhaps with burglar-proofing) to ensure that the library remains secure.
Computers in the library ought to be properly networked and also linked to the school network to allow school wide access to the library's catalogue, software, helpful files and the internet. They should be equipped with software to meet the needs of all subject areas, ages, levels of reading and styles of learning.
Ideally the library should stock books for all reading levels as well as have a variety of books in at least English, French and Spanish since the school occasionally receives foreign exchange students who speak these languages. Proper signage should be placed in these languages to allow all students to be able to use the library and to immerse those learning the languages in common words and phrases.
Shelving should be no more than 5 feet tall to allow easy access by all heights of students as well as those who are wheel chair bound. A space of no less than 4 feet between tables and 5 feet between shelves should be provided to allow for ease of traffic and wheelchair access.
A comfortable is ideal for students who come to the library to relax, read and de-stress. Cubicles are necessary for individual study and tables seating 4-6 students are recommended to encourage small study groups.
An Audio visual area is recommended to allow students or classes to participate in multimedia session. This area should also have proper seating to allow for lectures.
Lockers should ideally be provided to give a sense of security to students using the library as currently their only option is to leave their bags in class or on an open unsecured shelf.
A staff area should be provided that includes a refrigerator, sink and microwave, outlets and a comfortable sitting area. It should also house bathrooms for the staff and work tables to allow for ease of assembling displays and teaching plans and cupboards for stationery storage.
A librarian's office/area should be present with adequate file storage, computer and printer access, and a phone/ intercom system.
The circulation desk should be large enough to accommodate at least two members of staff and should house a computer and printer and other materials out of the reach of students. It should ideally be facing or near to the entrance/ exit of the library to allow for easy monitoring of the students entering and leaving.
Illustrations demonstrating these recommendations can be found in the appendix.
It is hoped that through these aforementioned improvements, all students and staff of St. Augustine Girls' High School can have an area where they can feel welcome and comfortable. Where their needs, no matter what they are, are met and where the Vision and mission of the school, to "ensure a safe student-centered climate, which nurtures articulate, confident, empowered individuals who as critical thinkers and life-long learners will make a positive impact on societyâ€¦" can be achieved. It is hoped that the facilities will truly "provide a modern physical and technological environment with a quality-based instructional programme using innovative and up-to-date strategies and methodsâ€¦" so that the school, no matter what needs the population may have, can continue to educate and send into the world the strong, well-rounded leaders of tomorrow.