Monday 22 October 2012

500 more places for special needs children

Pathlight and Metta schools taking in more kids with autism, learning disabilities
By Jane Ng, The Straits Times, 21 Oct 2012

Two schools for children with special needs are expanding to provide 500 more places from next year.

Pathlight School for children with autism has started a second campus while Metta School for children with intellectual disability or autism is adding a new block of classrooms. This means more children aged seven to 21 with moderate learning disabilities can attend a specialised programme. Some are now in mainstream schools.

The number of new autism cases diagnosed has risen at an annual rate of 11 per cent since 2005, due in part to increased awareness and a broader definition of autism to include children who are mildly autistic. Autism is a brain-based developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to communicate with others.

The increase in places is good news for parents who have been hoping for a place in a special education school for their children.

Housewife Ho Kum Yen, 41, applied to Pathlight last year for her six-year-old son Teck Yee, but was unsuccessful. She tried again this year and managed to get a place for him next year.

Teck Yee was diagnosed with autism when he was three.

Said Madam Ho: "We were planning to defer his registration in a mainstream school if we couldn't get a place in Pathlight, so this is very good news for us."

The Education Ministry announced a $30 million plan last year to refurbish and upgrade facilities at three special schools, with the bulk going to a purpose-built building for Delta Senior School, a vocational school for students with intellectual disabilities.

Delta Senior will have a new campus at Choa Chu Kang Grove. Principal Michelle Liau said no details are available yet.

A new five-storey building at Metta School in Simei will have 20 classrooms and a range of facilities for vocational training, including kitchens, a mock-up hotel room for housekeeping training and co-curricular activity rooms. The new facilities can take an additional 150 students at the school, which now has 435 students aged seven to 21.

Principal Melison See said the school previously did not have enough vocational training facilities. "We had to extend school hours and stagger the timetable to give students access to the facilities," she said.

Over at Pathlight, its two campuses will have a maximum capacity of more than 1,000 students in less than five years, by which time it plans to run separate junior, senior and vocational schools.

Most of its students take mainstream exams like the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and the GCE O and N levels.

Campus 2, at Ang Mo Kio Street 44, was opened at the beginning of this year near its Avenue 10 campus. There are 712 students in both campuses now.

School supervisor and MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC Denise Phua said the first campus was bursting at the seams, and could take in only half of about 300 applications each year.

Its Campus 2 now has 14 classrooms fitted with furniture that can be easily rearranged.

Dr Yeap Ban Har, Pathlight's director for curriculum and professional development, said: "Having desks in rows will tell the students it is time for independent work, whereas when they are grouped together, it is time for interaction. This is especially helpful for children with autism."

All classrooms have television screens and projectors so teachers can use a mix of online and traditional materials.

The school is planning to upload teachers' lectures online, starting with mathematics and science subjects.

"We'll always be short of good teachers so this is one way to ensure good materials are shared," said Ms Phua.

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