This is a story about Anton, a 15-year-old learner who was falling through the cracks.
It is also a story about a few forward-thinking teachers, parents and the STAR Centre that challenged the norm. As a young child, Anton spent his pre-school years at St. Martin Kindergarten, which is part of the broader system of the German International School Cape Town (Deutsche Internationale Schule Kapstadt (DSK)).
Back then, Anton’s developmental delays were completely inconspicuous. When moving up to primary school, Anton was integrated, played with his peers, participated, and was happy to be at school. Any ‘uninvolved’ bystander would have perceived the young boy at most as a bit introverted. This extraordinary behaviour was, however, noticed more intensely when, in Grade 3, Anton would retreat to the locker rooms for his school lunch during break times.
The Star Centre comes to the rescue
At this point it proved to be Anton’s luck that he was being taught at the German School Cape Town, because now the Star Centre, the name of the school’s Learner Support Centre, was involved. A specially trained educator, Claudia Stadler, took him under her wing. She built a special relationship with him, which laid the foundation for further collaboration. Initially her intervention was very low-key. She talked to him, and at times took him out of class to get to know him better.
Looking back, this seems to have been the best and only possible approach if anything was to be achieved.
In the following months, the school noticed increasing challenges when it came to Anton’s teaching and learning. A psychologist from the Star Centre attested to Anton’s having an average intelligence, but suspected an autism diagnosis. This was confirmed by an external psychiatrist after detailed examinations and sessions. This marked the lowest point of Anton`s emotional life so far.
During one break time, incited by his classmates, he climbed into a rubbish bin. The substitute teacher, in whose class he was at the time, was completely overwhelmed, and unfortunately uninformed about Anton`s behaviour. Even during sports, his behaviour was now perceived as visibly aggressive. He was provoked in physical confrontation and scuffles, and simply did not know the appropriate way to express himself. By this stage, his classmates had to be somewhat protected from him.
Anton’s way of coping was now to look for hiding places on the school grounds and to withdraw from the outside world. Initially of course, his behaviour caused panic, since a missing learner is the worst-case scenario for any school. Luckily Stadler never lost her connection with him, and was able to find him every time he went missing. She now took him out of regular classes more often to work with him one-on-one.
The start of a thoughtful reintegration process
This point marked the beginning of Anton’s reintegration process, even though initially it meant his separation from his class. Taking him out of the class allowed him (and other learners with special needs) to engage creatively with school and all related tasks.
As mentioned before, all of this was only possible because the Star Centre at the DSK plays a crucial part role in the everday life of many learners. The budget and staffing needs of the STAR Centre are set to be successively increased as the number of learners with special needs continues to rise, especially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, I became Anton’s class teacher, and became privy to his special situation. At a class conference at the beginning of the school year, an information session on autism was organised and all colleagues were informed.
Even before COVID-19 took place, puberty and hormonal changes had a massive effect on Anton. He became increasingly unsure of himself, to the point where he was no longer able to set foot in a regular classroom. However, a life-changing idea came to his rescue. In order to follow the lessons in class, he had to be protected from the curious stares from his classmates, which would normally immobilise him. Now, Anton was allowed to sit behind a makeshift folding screen, while under the supervision of a teacher. In this way, he was still able to exchange ideas with his peers.
The discovery of a measure of peace
However, it soon became clear that making his way to the classroom was at least as problematic for Anton as being in class. So his father, at significant cost to his earnings, came along as a facilitator during the lessons that the class had with me as the class teacher.
Anton was unable to attend the other subject lessons because he was overwhelmed by the different, unfamiliar room situation. The hustle and bustle in the school hallways during break also made it impossible for him to move between classrooms.
During the separation phase in the class behind the screen, it became apparent that Anton found inner peace in drawing and colouring. He produced such extraordinary works of art, that they were bound to attract attention sooner or later. Fortunately, we now moved two things into focus, namely his still-to-be-discovered ability to occupy himself full time, as well as the fact that he was clearly able produce something great and unique.
The birth of SNAPY
Happily, an idea was born out of this situation: to let Anton play a crucial part in financing his own special needs through his artwork. So I presented my request, rather by chance, to a patent, Otto Gerntholtz, attorney friend of mine, and actually opened a door for Anton. It was our luck that Anton’s pictures are real works of art that speak for themselves. We were further fortunate to get touch with a web designer who recognised Anton‘s talent, agreed to help us and created a webpage.
This website (as well as via the inserted QR-code) is where any potential supporter/customer and art collector and now purchase various products with the artist`s design. Anton has given himself the alias SNAPY. Hence the URL is named: https://snapycraft.com/.
The path chosen thus far seems to have succeeded in transforming Anton from being seen as the ‘problem child‘ to being recognised as a bright, colourful child who needs to be accomodated in an individual manner. The hope is that Anton’s art can help make a contribution to pay for a school facilitator for the future. However, what has already been achieved, is the fact that Anton has been able to sit alone in his class teacher’s lessons and interact with his classmates once again – a huge first step in the right direction.
Together with the Star Centre and the family, goals were put in place. These were in the form of small steps and realistic changes.
The main focuses of the parents are not their son’s graduation from school, but rather the promotion of his independence, and the chance to live a fulfilling life outside of school.
The harsh reality is that integration does not come for free. Anton is one of the lucky ones to attend a school that makes it possible for him to receive support and attention outside of the conventional school routine. Even with a Star Centre behind you, it takes a lot of effort and sacrifice from everyone involved to work together and make a change for the future.
The Learner Support Centre (STAR Centre) at the German International School in Cape Town
Since 2007, counsellors at the STAR Centre of the German International School in Cape Town have offered emotional, social and academic support to all learners at the school throughout their school careers.
At the STAR Centre, young learners and adolescents with special needs receive professional counselling, tailor-made to their age and needs. When a teacher or parent identifies a possible need for support (challenges may be related to study skills, reading, spelling, speech, muscle tone, and behaviour), the class teacher is contacted, and in turn liaises with the STAR Centre.