OUTLOOK editor Brenda Dickerson interviews Dr. Cindy Bracken-Schwagerman, mother and homeschooling teacher of a special needs child.
Please share your family’s background and struggle with educating your daughter.
Our family lives in a small rural community outside Kansas City, Missouri. My husband, Bill, is an engineering project manager and I was an animal science professor at a local university. I became a full-time homemaker after our daughter Emaline, now almost 10 years old, was born with Down syndrome (Ds) and the heart defect Tetralogy of Fallot.
We have a small acreage with a few animals and raised-bed gardens. We love living in the country, but the distance from a city with resources for a child with a cognitive disability can be problematic.
Before our daughter was born we considered either enrolling her in our local Adventist school or homeschooling. After the Ds diagnosis, we were not sure what the best schooling option would be, as now we had a child who required intensive interventions with speech, occupational and physical therapy. While there are good resources available in Kansas City, accessing those resources increased the demands on our already strained finances and scheduling.
When it was time for Emaline to start school we enrolled her, reluctantly, in our local public school. We felt we did not have the skills to homeschool her and the local Adventist school did not have the personnel resources to take on a student who would require a one-on-one adult paraprofessional.
It was a difficult decision to say the least. To ease the transition we kept her in kindergarten two years, which was wonderful. The special education teachers, as well as her kindergarten teacher, were well trained and knew just how to accommodate her needs.
As she progressed into first and second grade the quality of her educational experience began to drop significantly and we knew we had to pull her out of the public school system. Unfortunately, enrolling her in our local Adventist school was still not an option and we were left with homeschooling for third grade.
Homeschooling has been a significant change for our family, with its challenges and rewards. Our daughter is now reading at a low first grade level, which probably would not have happened if she was still enrolled in public school. On the down side, she no longer has access to activities such as choir—one of her favorite activities in school.
We would like to find a way to access that activity through our local Adventist school, but we haven’t yet. It is discouraging, to say the least. Because most Adventist schools (especially in rural areas or with low enrollment) don’t have the necessary resources, our daughter and other students with developmental and cognitive disabilities will not, for the foreseeable future, be able to receive an Adventist education.
What are some solutions to the challenges of providing Adventist education for students with special needs?
Make sure college students who are pursuing education degrees at Adventist colleges are receiving adequate courses about educating children with special needs. I would like to see at least a special education minor, if not a major, available.
Increase church members’ education and awareness of needs. In our area, we have a local Down Syndrome Guild that provides educational and awareness information. Additionally, the internet offers a wealth of information regarding even the rarest of conditions. Because the Adventist community has a relatively low population of children with developmental and cognitive disabilities, most Adventists are simply unaware of the needs and challenges.
For example, Christian Record Services has done a wonderful job of making people aware of the needs of those who are visually impaired or blind. It is time for the church to expand on their work to include disabilities of many types.
Create infrastructure. Either build or remodel existing facilities to accommodate and educate children with special needs.
Provide financial support from all levels: General Conference, North American Division, union, local conference and local church.
What’s your vision for expanding Adventist education for developmentally challenged students?
For children with disabilities who are high school age, I would like to see an Adventist school placed in each region of North America that is dedicated strictly to educating special needs students. Yes, this goes against the current trend of “inclusive” education, but many students with disabilities just don’t fare well once they reach middle and high school ages. Schools dedicated to educating only students with disabilities can place learners in classes based upon developmental progress rather than by chronological (age) cohort.
We also need in-depth curriculum and teaching modalities/methods with our Adventist values targeted for special education students. Not only will this benefit children with special needs, but in all likelihood teachers will find this helpful for typical students who are struggling to learn certain concepts.
Finally, I believe there needs to be dialog between Adventist educators (directors, administrators, teachers, teacher’s aides), parents with special needs children, and students representing several types of learning disabilities to better identify needs, teaching strategies, and expectations that can be realistically implemented. I know this is a complex issue with many facets but I believe it is something God is wanting us to address more openly and bring to greater awareness across the church.