IT wasn’t a decision that Jackie and Padraig Keohane from Clonakilty made lightly when they took their son, David who has moderate Down Syndrome, out of mainstream education several years ago. But once they sent David to the Special Needs Class in St Mary’s Senior School in Dunmanway, they haven’t looked back.
‘David absolutely loves it and he wouldn’t be where he is today were it not for the school. We are delighted with his progress since he started school here.’ said Jackie Keohane.
‘The staff are brilliant. He’s able to read up to first class level, he can count to 50 and his speech has come on miles. The SNA’s at the school have a different way of bringing the children on and the small pupil numbers make it even better.’
While this is David’s last year in the school, his time there has done wonders for him.
‘David has friends now that he wouldn’t have if he had stayed in mainstream education. I’ll be very sad that he will be leaving to go onto secondary school but we will continue to support the classes there. I would advise any parent who has a child with special needs to send them to St Mary’s as it’s a wonderful school,’ added Jackie.
At the helm of the special needs classes are Principal Mairéad Twohig and the two class teachers, Anne Healy and Clare Murphy who work hard to promote the services.
‘We want to get the word out about these classes, but also we want to promote them from the point of view that they’re attached to a mainstream school, and that integration and inclusion are very much part of what they’re about,’ said Mairéad Twohig, principal of St Mary’s Senior Girls School.
‘The class was set up in 1998 to cater for both boys and girls and because of growing numbers, it was extended in 2001 to include two rooms and two teachers.’
By 2006 a new, purpose-built facility was opened as part of the mainstream school and extra facilities include a special playground and a multi-sensory room along with sporting facilities. Ranging in ages from four to 14 years of age, the pupils come from all over West Cork with school transport provided door-to-door for them.
‘There are two classes and we aim to have equal numbers in each but it may not always be the case. It’s based more on the child’s need and what’s appropriate for them and where they make progress mostly.’
Promoting independence is a key aim, as is helping the children to reach their potential. This is achieved through an Individual Education Plan (IEP).
‘This is based on their strengths, needs, aspirations and hopes for the future and we devise these programmes in consultation with the parents, external agencies and if appropriate, the child themselves.’
One parent has described the facility as the ‘best of both worlds’ as the children are integrated with the main school.
‘As a parent, you want your child to belong and we’ve been very successful in achieving that. The children are integrated through things like reading and lunchtime buddies, music and singing, lunchtime activities and school outings.’
There is also a focus on life and social skills to achieve that independence. The pupils have cooking classes as well as being taken to the local shops and community gardens.
‘Another thing which is great is that a lot of these children make a smooth transition to secondary school, and we hear from other students about how well they are able to adapt to their new environment.
It’s of mutual benefit to both sides and the other children certainly benefit too,’ said Anne Healy, a teacher in one of the classes.
Support from outside the school and in the town itself has always been fantastic. Numerous fundraising events have been held through the years, which have allowed the school to buy extra equipment and learning resources for the classes.
‘Some parents have commented on how their child’s self esteem rises when they join these classes and they are happy and working at their own level. The teamwork here is unbelievable too and the work that Anne and Clare do along with our five SNAs is just outstanding,’ added Mairéad.
An Open Day for the Special Needs Class at St Mary’s Senior School will take place on Saturday, January 30th from 2pm to 4pm.
See www.smgssd.scoilnet.ie for more information or contact the school on 023-8845108