Preps enter the gates of their new school dressed in the same uniform and they’re about the same age. However, scan their little faces and it is clear each child is feeling different things about school.
Villa Maria Catholic Homes’ specialist school, St Paul’s College, is no exception and its prep grade, called the Bridging Program, recognises and supports the different strengths, interests and dreams of each student and their family.
Ten preps are part of the innovative Bridging Program this year. It provides preps with additional needs a gradual transition into mainstream school. They attend St Paul’s three days a week where they benefit from small class sizes, support from allied health professionals and specialist teachers. They also attend the mainstream school of their choice for the other two days.
Parent, Gabrielle, says her family chose the Bridging Program for their six-year-old son Jack this year to give him the best chance to attend his local primary school fulltime eventually.
“We wanted to set Jack up for success in mainstream schooling by being able to teach him the fundamentals of turn-taking, sitting in a group without getting distracted, correct social behaviours and general school routine,” Gabrielle said.
Jack is an adorable six-year-old who loves all things on wheels, playing at the park and riding his bike.
“Give him a truck, digger, train, bus, boat and he is a happy boy,” Gabrielle said.
Jack, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder, started prep with nine other students in the program at the beginning of this year.
“We love that there isn’t the mainstream pressure on Jack to write his name, read, and draw at this stage. These are all the things that he struggles with and in a classroom of 18 he would get a bit lost and potentially go backwards,” Gabrielle said.
Bridging Program teacher, Gillian Bryan, says Jack and his classmates benefit from a smaller class size, a play-based teaching approach and the program covers the Victorian Curriculum with modifications where necessary.
“It’s very much the same structure of a prep grade. We make reasonable adjustments to the individual children’s requirements,” she said.
Gillian and her team also regularly visit Jack’s mainstream school to support his transition. This can include everything from providing practical resources, sharing their expertise with teachers at the mainstream school and offering tips to adjust the curriculum where needed.
About 66 per cent of children with special needs attend mainstream schools and 9.9 per cent go to specialist schools. The remainder, about 24 per cent attend special classes within mainstream schools.
Research strongly backs the benefits of inclusive education. It shows students with disability and their peers who do not have special needs benefit from being together. Students with special needs generally perform better academically, socially, behaviourally and their communication and language development is generally better. Meanwhile, their peers learn about diversity and inclusion.
Gillian, who has been with the Bridging Program since it started 12 year ago, said parents knew their children best and encouraged them to trust their instincts when it comes to choosing the right school.
“You’re not going to do them any damage if things are not working out one way. There is always a plan B, there’s always a plan C. As you go on the journey you become very good at changing plans and being flexible because it’s not one size fits all with children,” she said.
“Ultimately you have to put them in a place where they are going to be safe, respected and valued for who they are and for what they can do. The whole aim of education is to bring out the best in children so that they are the best that they can be and so it’s just about choosing a setting where you believe that will happen.”
By the end of the school year, the Bridging Program teachers help the parents consider their options for the following year.
Gillian said she loved seeing the changes in students as the year progressed.
“These children just surprise me every day,” she said.
“Give them a challenge, encourage them and teach them to be confident and they will rise to the occasion and they will hit those goals and often exceed them.”
Victorian Department of Education & Training & Children at School with Disability, ABS, 2009.