About two weeks ago I got a phone call. Then two days later I got another one. Two nursery schools suddenly had a place open and offered it to Sebastian. Five days a week, for the morning session. Right now. November 2010. Not September 2011. This month.
Let me start at the beginning.
Upon learning we were moving to Toronto I contacted a nursery school which I found online. I wanted to explore our options and I thought it would be nice for Sebastian to go to school a couple mornings a week. Two mornings. He’s so interested in other kids and I thought it would not only be a great opportunity for him socially, but also to work on gaining a sense of independence and for us to be less dependent on each other. Because I depend on him too. After all, we are together ALL the time. So his name went on the waiting list.
Once we arrived to Toronto, we settled in the east part of the city and this nursery school was too far away. It was also five days a week. They directed me to two other locations closer to us with additional programs times. I contacted both schools. Sebastian was added to their waiting lists. I learned that likely nothing would be available for this year. Never mind. I met a nanny on a bus who told me about another school. I called them and they referred me to a fifth school. We visited all of them. For next year.
Each of these schools have one thing in common. They cater to special needs kids/kids with additional needs. Each program varies slightly. One program told me they could not accommodate Sebastian, that he would have to have his own aid which I would have to provide. It was a private school, so they could do that I guess. Off the list. Three of them were all affiliates of a Kids Rehab Hospital, a place where Sebastian is on waiting lists for several services. The last school is specifically for special needs kids with a reverse integration program. I will get to that in a moment.
Once I accepted that Sebastian would have to start school early, then there was the glorious blessing of CHOICE. Choice is a good thing. An exciting thing. A challenging thing. Choice keeps me awake at night and my mind wanders during the day from one to the other. Which one is the right one and why don’t I have more time to figure it out? Why does Sebastian even have to go to school at age 2.5?! I never imagined I would send my child to school so early, after all, I am a former teacher. I can hang out with and teach my kid stuff, right? Well, things work a bit differently here. Getting Sebastian into one of these nursery schools now would open up a lot of services for him that he is on waiting lists for. They would also put referrals into place for other services so that the waiting list wouldn’t be as long as it would be otherwise. There is also the issue that if you do not accept placement for your child when your turn is up, you are placed at the bottom of the list with no guarantee you will have a place offered to you for the upcoming year. At one school the waiting list is 200 for 18 places. Right.
I have really struggled with sending Sebastian to school so I am not going to discuss it further in this post. Today we decide which is the best fit for Sebastian. So I’m going to share some stats as well as my personal beliefs and where Sebastian fits in with those.
2 teachers for 16 students with a volunteer program. Five volunteers a week, one for each day of the week, assigned to Sebastian for the duration of the school year. The teachers choose activities which work on cognitive, gross and fine motor skills for the volunteers to do with Sebastian. There are physical, occupational and speech therapists that come in a couple times a week on a consultative basis to create goals and activities for the teachers and volunteers to work on with Sebastian. There are notes written once a week by each volunteer kept in a binder. There is a special ‘gym’ room which has equipment that rotates once a month with different types of swings, steps, balls, items for gross motor development with a plan posted to the wall for each child written up by the PT. There is circle time with music. There is time for sensory activities like painting and water play. Each activity the volunteer is there to help Sebastian as he needs it. Sebastian does not sit up on his own and he also needs help reaching for and holding onto things. The volunteer would help with this. There is free play time, but we did not observe kids playing together, but rather doing their activities with their volunteer with the teachers checking in or guiding a small group. The school is reverse integration, meaning that 80% of the kids have special needs and 20% are typically developing, often times siblings. The school also offers a bus (van) service to pick up and take your child home. With this service the day would last about 8.30-12.30/12.45. The school hours are 9.15-11.45. The program is mostly guided and direct instruction.
The facilities and support are excellent. The teaching approach is somewhat different from my own in the past, but also many kids with additional needs thrive from structure and direct teaching. My struggle with this school is the reverse integration program; I would like Sebastian to be in an environment with more typically developing kids so he can watch, learn and be motivated by them. I also believe in inclusion and think both kids with additional needs and typically developing benefit from being around each other. This is the short version of my thoughts on this topic…I also feel like it is a place where a lot of therapy/therapy-type activities are happening. A lot of things that we work on at home or in therapy. Sebastian will still have therapy on top of school because the therapists in school don’t work with him on an individual basis. Therapy and support are good, but I want to feel like a lot of socialization is happening and I didn’t observe much on the two visits we had.
2 teachers for 12 students. The odd volunteer or student teacher throughout the week. Therapists on a consultative basis 2-3 times a week. A music specialist twice a week for the whole class. An outdoor playground, fully accessible with ramps. An indoor soft playroom for bad weather days. A connection between the school and the rehab hospital and other services Sebastian is currently getting or on the waiting list for. The curriculum is play-based, centered around the Reggio Emilia Approach, which I am somewhat familiar with and I think is similar to the primary years program (IB). Sebastian would have appropriate seating to help him be involved in classroom activities. Sometimes the teacher might carry him or sit with him. Sometimes Sebastian might sit by himself with toys. Toys that he might not be able to manipulate on his own. There will be other children who can engage with him and vice versa. There are opportunities for sensory play with water and sand and sometimes child-lead projects. Sebastian would be introduced to projects that he seems interested in and set up with support. This school is integrated with 50% special needs kids and 50% typically developing kids. There are no other kids in Sebastian’s class with the type of physical needs that he has.
Sebastian would have to learn to be a lot more independent than he is now and also learn to be on his own to do activities sometimes. I think this is good, but it’s also scary to think about him being on his own, unable to do something and getting sad or frustrated. But it could also be motivating. Sebastian had a trial day at this school today with his dad. He enjoyed being there and was exhausted afterward. We learned that some challenges might include snack time and seating, which we knew. Sebastian cannot feed himself and he takes time to eat. He was also distracted by the other kids which made chewing more of a challenge. He was interested in other kids and they were interested in him. The teacher took him over to play a game with another child while his dad watched from nearby. We both spent time talking to the teacher and when I asked her if she felt he could be accommodated in the classroom her reply was a resounding ‘Of course! I think everyone can be accommodated!”
Which school will he go to? I want him to go to School 2. I want that to be the right school for him. I like the feel of the school, the philosophy and the environment. I like that it’s more integrated with an equal balance of kids with additional and typical needs. It feels like a ‘normal’ pre-school. School 1 is a school which has been created for kids with special needs. It reverse integrated about 15-20 years ago. Because it’s a special school, there are more specialized services and more support. I never planned for Sebastian to go to a ‘special’ school. This brings up the inclusion philosophy again. I suppose this topic is just beginning. And it’s starting so much earlier than I had planned.
What would you do? Which school would you choose? We make our final choice tomorrow, then Sebastian will start slowly, just two days at first and build up a day each week. And then everything changes. A new schedule. Therapies shifted. And the need for a car grows.