By Shein Poonja and Glen Hoos
Reprinted from 3.21: Canada’s Down Syndrome Magazine (Issue #12: The Back to School Issue). Click here to download the full magazine.
Completing high school is a major achievement worth celebrating for every student. For some, it’s an extra special accomplishment.
In British Columbia, the standard high school diploma is known as the Dogwood Diploma. To earn the Dogwood, students must earn a minimum of 80 credits and write the Grade 10 Numeracy Assessment and Grades 10 and 12 Literacy Assessments. The 80 credits must include 52 credits for required courses and a minimum of 28 elective credits.
Students who do not meet the requirements of the Dogwood graduate with a school completion certificate, also known as the Evergreen Certificate. The Evergreen is awarded to students who do not complete the full high school curriculum, and whose learning outcomes are modified and set forth in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
Historically, virtually all students with Down syndrome in BC graduate with the Evergreen, rather than the Dogwood. Indeed, it is almost universally assumed that students with Down syndrome will follow this path. Educators, parents, students – very few give any thought to an alternative.
Zamaan Jivraj is not one to take the easy path. His mom Shein tells his story.
When Zamaan was born, I took him to my GP for his doctor’s appointment. She asked how I was feeling. I replied, “I’m doing great; it’s everyone else who seems to be having trouble adjusting.” The doctor told me that the reason people didn’t share my sentiment was because Zamaan was not going to follow the ‘normal trajectory.’ She said, essentially, “You’re not going to have a kid that goes off to university and leaves your home and does all those things. That’s just not going to happen for you.”
I knew immediately that was the end of the line for me with that doctor.
Shortly thereafter, I visited with the doctor who had delivered Zamaan. He provided much needed perspective, assuring me that I was no different than any other parent. Every parent and every child has dreams, and each one faces challenges along the way. We just happened to have a name for something that may be challenging for our child. Start with love and go from there.
For me, and for our family, education is a huge thing. It’s the key to opening doors and having options in life. It’s the reason my parents and my husband’s parents migrated to this wonderful country: to give us all opportunity through education. We always approached Zamaan’s journey with the question, “If he didn’t have Down syndrome, what would we do?” Making sure my child has a good education is how I would parent a child who didn’t have Down syndrome, and I wasn’t going to parent Zamaan any differently.
Right from the beginning, I taught Zamaan his alphabet and his numbers. By the time he got to kindergarten, he was reading better than some of his peers. So, we just decided to let him lead the way and go along on this journey with him. We weren’t going to remove possibilities from him. Just as our parents had done for us, we would put opportunities in front of him, and if he’s rolling along, we would roll right along with him.
Unfortunately, not all educators shared this viewpoint. In the first grade, we ran into our first problem – and a sign of things to come.
Zamaan knew how to read, and he was a good speller. His teacher was doing spelling tests and she said that Zamaan didn’t have to do the tests. When I asked why, she said that his writing was very slow and she couldn’t wait for him to finish while the rest of the class was waiting for the next word.
I suggested that Zamaan could type his words on an iPad, because he was pretty quick with that. In fact, he could probably type more quickly than some of the other students could write. The teacher wasn’t too keen on it, but I forced the issue like I did for a lot of things after that. And Zamaan did great. He got 100% on every spelling test.
That’s just one example of what we faced time and time again through Zamaan’s grade school years. People assumed he couldn’t do things and would approach his journey with that bias. They wouldn’t give him the work and at times would actively work to exclude him. At one point, a teacher taped a sign to his desk: “I will not talk, I will not ask the teacher questions.” It got so bad that we spoke to a lawyer.
Eventually, the district issued us an apology. That year, I would send Zamaan to school in the morning just to have a routine and socialize, and got a tutor at home for him in the afternoon. The teacher refused to give him the novel the class was studying, so we bought our own copy and worked on what the tutor said would be the learning outcomes.
Despite everyone’s best efforts to put Zamaan in a box, we knew he could fly. My training as an occupational therapist came in handy as I have the skills to help break things down for Zamaan in a way that helps him understand. Everyday after school, we sat down and reviewed everything that was covered in school and I retaught it to him, adapting it in a way that fit with his learning style. This allowed him to keep up with the class and follow the typical curriculum.
The one bright spot was Grade 6 and 7. Zamaan had an incredible teacher and educational assistant who valued and believed in him. Zamaan was fully included in everything, and he thrived. It was so amazing, there were times when we had to pinch ourselves. Those two years were the most positive for him.
As he began high school, Zamaan did everything the same as his peers other than French, which he was very good at, but which the learning support teacher said was not required, so they could use that time to help him with other classes. His biggest area of struggle was math. They worked with him on this during a support block. However, the math that was being covered was far too basic and not in the curriculum.
By Grade 9, the resource teacher to came to me and suggested that Zamaan be removed from his English class. Zamaan was getting 80% in English, but the teacher was convinced that Zamaan wasn’t keeping up, and his grade wasn’t reflective of how he was really doing. I said, “That’s not Zamaan’s fault; the teacher has full control of how to grade his work and tests. This is the grade the teacher is giving him.”
That resource teacher eventually left the school, but not before strongly recommending that Zamaan switch into modified classes – not just for English or math, but for all his classes. Had he done so, Zamaan would not have qualified for the Dogwood, but that wasn’t our primary concern. We just wanted him to be in the best learning environment, and one that matched his ability. I wasn’t ready to take him out of the classes just because the resource teacher didn’t believe in him.
I think one of the issues is that Zamaan’s verbal language skills are not at the same level as his comprehension. He has the cognitive abilities to put thoughts together but has a harder time expressing them. As his mom, I know when he understands something and when he does not, but his teachers didn’t know him that well.
Just prior to Grade 10, I met with the district principal. He agreed that Zamaan should remain in regular classes and told us that if things weren’t working out, we could withdraw him from class as late as the last day of the semester and try again the following year.
We ran into some challenges with Science (10). The previous year, Zamaan got 75% in chemistry, and suddenly he was getting zeroes on tests. The teacher did not communicate with us, didn’t let us see the tests and refused to have discussions. In hindsight, I believe she felt he shouldn’t be in her class. The solution, which allowed him to stay with the regular curriculum, was to move him into the ESL (English as a Second Language) class. It was perfect for Zamaan, because they sifted out a lot of the extra stuff that other classes do and just focused on the actual necessities of the curriculum. The language was simpler and slower, and they spent time exploring each of the scientific words. We found it to be a good fit.
The last few years of high school were by far the toughest. Zamaan spent six hours a day at school, essentially just to collect the work and record the lectures. Then he would come home, and I would listen to the lecture, make notes, and teach the material to him. And it worked. His first year taking math in high school, he ended up with 95%.
When COVID-19 hit, things changed. Zamaan began doing some of his classes online through the school district. The teachers overseeing that were very supportive and willing to make the adaptations that Zamaan needed to succeed. So, he finished off his English and socials credits online, and did science, math, and electives at school. He consistently scored over 80% in his classes, and sometimes over 90%. In Grade 11 he received honors with distinction.
If anything, COVID actually made things a little easier for us, because he was no longer having to go to school. We were getting all the work online when school was shut down. We would sit down at 9:30 and finish by 2:00. Zamaan had time to exercise; he started doing yoga, and he was able to watch TV at night to unwind. It was more balanced.
I’m not going to lie; the overall process was exhausting. However, Zamaan was doing the work and earning the grades. We checked in with him regularly to make sure he was alright, that he wanted to carry on, and he would always say, “I am fine, let’s keep going. I don’t want to leave the class(es).”
The final challenge was the provincial exams. He did his provincial numeracy exam, and he passed. He completed his provincial Grade 10 and 12 literacy exams and passed. He had done everything required.
Zamaan’s graduation in June 2022 was the culmination of twelve years of hard work on his part, and twelve years of perseverance in the face of obstacles that others were setting in front of him. Our commitment was just to do our best, get him a good education, leave every opportunity open for him, and see what happened. And he did it!
We are extremely proud of Zamaan. I’ve always known that he is a hard worker, but the amount of sweat equity that went into this, it is unbelievable. When we watched him cross that stage and get that diploma, the auditorium erupted.
Zamaan’s wonderful seventh grade teacher was also in the audience. The next day, he sent us this note:
A massive congrats to Zamaan and the both of you!!! I say this often… the Grad 2022 class is a special crew of kind, caring, and empathetic kids which I fully credit Zamaan for cultivating. Your boy’s positive spirit and energy has shaped and carried this cohort throughout their school years and we are so thankful that our daughter and Zamaan have been classmates all this time. On an emotional night for everyone, Zamaan received the biggest ovation of all which was so deserved. You must be incredibly proud of him for all he has accomplished and for the countless people, students and parents included, that he continues to inspire day in and day out. I can’t wait to see what he accomplishes next!
Even though we know what a big deal this is, Zamaan is taking it all in stride. His attitude is, “Of course! All my peers graduated with the Dogwood; why wouldn’t I?”
What’s next? Whatever Zamaan wants. He has left the door open for himself to do whatever he wants in the future. He’ll take some time to figure out what he likes to do and what he may want to pursue. The door is open. Currently he is working on his business, The Granola Kid.
Whether or not other families feel the path we took is right for them and their child, I think the big message here is: don’t take them out of the game from the start. Leave them in and see where they go. We always taught Zamaan that he was strong, smart, and could do anything he wanted. We used him as the guide and he earned himself a diploma.