Child-centred learning place in the works - students needed

Credit: Kristi Dobson
Jessica Burns, and her children Dylan and Declan, enjoy a lot of outdoor play time.
Kristi Dobson

In her quest to provide the best education for her children, Jessica Burns, with the help of other parents, hopes to open a new, specialized learning centre in Port Alberni. Jessica has two young sons living with varying degrees of Autism Spectrum Disorder and has experienced first-hand the challenges of education.

Over the past few months, Jessica has been commuting to Nanaimo with her son, Declan, who attends the Nanaimo Unique Kids Organization (NUKO). The learning centre offers a personalized setting for children with complex neuro-developmental disabilities, including Austism, FASD, ADHD, OCD and Downs Syndrome.

Jessica decided to withdraw Declan from public school last fall. He attended Maquinna Elementary, and although she said adequate attention was provided, she still experienced road blocks.

“It was awesome at Maquinna,” Jessica said. “They wanted to do what was best for him, but it is graduated entry and he was only allowed to be there for two hours.”

Declan also has behavioral issues that cannot always be addressed by the School District.

“I suggested a lift belt to physically maneuver these children but they can’t because of the hands-off policy,” she said.

Since attending the centre, Jessica has seen marked improvements with Declan’s behaviour and ability to learn. He has been provided with a customized program to meet his needs and is in a class with five other students with similar issues.

“He is now completing math,” Jessica said. “Last year we were just trying to get him to say his name.

Declan is also now addressing people without prompts.

“I am noticing the advantages because of the attention he is getting,” Jessica said. “I would love to see that here.”

NUKO is a registered non-profit and charitable organization. It has a satellite learning centre in Courtenay, which is how Jessica hopes to establish one in Port Alberni. Parents would be able to pay for tuition through the Ministry of Children and Family Development’s Autism Funding Programs or through assistance of the North Island Distance Education School for home-schooled children. Under NUKO’s umbrella, it would have access to BC Gaming funds for operations and the board of directors would also run regular fundraisers.

“I want parents to be able to drop off their kids and not have to worry about them all day,” Jessica said. “I was used to waiting for calls from the school to pick Declan up early and anticipated it (at NUKO) but it isn’t happening. I don’t want to be a teacher or case worker. I just want to be a mom.”

Along with teachable moments throughout the day, NUKO also provides physical education with horseback riding, gymnastics, karate and more. At this point, Jessica is looking for the commitment of seven to 10 students to be able to move forward with plans.

At the same time, she, along with Carla Bressan and Juanita Currie, is organizing the Rock the Walk for Autism awareness event this Saturday. On site, representatives from NUKO will be available to answer questions. Other service providers attending include Footholds Therapy Center, Janis Joseph with First Steps Ability House and a behavior analysis. The goal, Jessica said, is to share available resources with other parents. She hopes her idea of a learning centre in Port Alberni will add to what is already available.

“The home schoolers have a place to meet and with what Janis is doing with Ability House, it is amazing what services we have access to here,” Jessica said. “There is a big need and room for all of us to exist and work together.”

The 2nd Annual Rock the Walk to Raise Awareness for Autism starts at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 23 at the Best Western Barclay Hotel.