One out of every 800 births is a baby with Down syndrome, and yet little is done to include these children, who develop more slowly, in mainstream schooling, despite researchers stressing the many benefits of this.
In 2011, a group of southern suburbs families with Down syndrome babies pushed against the current, when they started a mainstream education model for them.
One founder of the Down Syndrome Inclusive Education Foundation (DSIEF), Marc Kobler, got a European Union grant to research inclusive education in schools in Germany, Holland and Britain.
The research he brought back served as the bedrock for the Early Impact programme – a pioneer project for pre-primary mainstreaming of children with Down syndrome, which was adopted by the Noah’s Ark preschool in Meadowridge six years ago.
Noah’s Ark principal, Sandie Mazzolini started the preschool in 1999 with eight children. Today it has 90, seven of them with Down syndrome.
Ms Mazzolini said that as with any changes in life there was initial resistance to including children with Down syndrome at the school, but parents and teachers had soon seen the advantages of integration.
The parents welcomed the diversity in the school community, and teachers learnt specialist teaching techniques using visual aids, learning tools and toys, which benefit all the children.
The programme helps children with Down syndrome – and other related or undiagnosed disabilities – participate in mainstream classes with the help of class assistants.
The children also get one-to-one time with a trained assistant or professional therapist in what is known at the school as the “sunshine room” – a quiet space where attention is given to developing the children’s fine and gross motor skills as well as their literacy and numeracy.
The children are assessed frequently on their verbal, numerical and physical skills against their own personalised education plans.
“Children with Down syndrome love to do all the things other boys and girls do. They might love to sing, dance, study, play sport and make music, and there is a wide variation in intellectual abilities, behaviour, and developmental progress in each child,” said Lasith Madurasinghe, the director of DSIEF.
His daughter, Arna, was 3 when she joined Noah’s Ark’s first batch of “diamonds”, as the children with Down syndrome are called at the school. Now almost 10, Arna is one of three Early Impact graduates to find a place at Herzlia Constantia Primary.
Mr Madurasinghe said 14 children had graduated from the programme so far and had been placed at St George’s School in Mowbray, Yeshua School in Heathfield, the Red School in Pinelands, Vista Nova in Rondebosch and Glenbridge in Diep River.
“Our goal was to create a programme that can be rolled out in any school. And also to encourage parents to demand the programme in their local school.”
Marilise Steenkamp was one such parent who heard about the Early Impact programme.
Her son, Jacques-Hendri, 8, was in a pilot project of the DSIEF programme run by Kinder Ark in Paarl.
She said her son had benefited greatly from the programme and had since graduated to Montessori@Home Paarl. Ms Mazzolini said the programme at Noah’s Ark had been rewarding both for pupils and the school itself.
“The school has grown so much since we started the programme. We’re giving these ‘diamonds’ their independence,” said Ms Mazzolini.
She said the “diamonds”, whom other children had wanted to mother at first, had grown in confidence to say, “Don’t help me.”
However, cost is always a factor and parents need to pay higher fees to cover the extra staff, teaching materials and external therapists.
Fund-raising includes sales of boerewors rolls and cake as well as help from the Cape Town Cycle Tour, which itself raised R10 000 for DSIEF last year despite being cancelled.
“We’ve doubled up this year to 20 places for the Cycle Tour, but it’s critical for us that we fill the places by the end of January,” said Mr Madurasinghe.
The race organisers would donate each fund-raising cyclist’s R800 entry fee to DSIEF, and each of the cyclists would commit to raising a minimum of R1 000.
For more information about DSIEF or to participate in the Cycle Tour fund-raiser call 074 180 4895, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.down-syndrome.co.za or www.facebook.com/dsief.