Student Aurora Criss

Student Aurora Criss

A light on the Horizon

When Lianne Manning walked into Horizon School in Olds, she knew straight away this was the place. It was 1981 and there were few school choices for children with severe special needs in Alberta.

OLDS — When Lianne Manning walked into Horizon School in Olds, she knew straight away this was the place.

It was 1981 and there were few school choices for children with severe special needs in Alberta.

Manning and her family were searching for a school for Zandra, then five, who was born premature and was developmentally delayed.

Manning felt an immediate connection with the Olds school and staff.

Little did Manning know at the time that she would be at the school well beyond her daughter’s graduation.

Last September, Horizon School marked 40 years in the community and Manning celebrated 30 years with the school.

Her daughter, Zandra, enrolled in September 1981 and graduated in the spring of 1994.

Manning landed a full-time teaching job after a few years of substitute teaching at the school.

“It’s just what I do,” said Manning. “It’s just part of who you are after a while . . . it’s part of your family.”

Manning watched as her daughter blossomed into a capable and functional member of the community.

Zandra is now 35 and lives in Olds with a roommate.

“I have sometimes thought about how it could have been if she didn’t go here,” said Manning. “If she would have gone to a regular school, I am sure she would have been kicked out. She is very spirited and opinionated.”

Manning watched as changes in society and education impacted the school curriculum and student population.

Horizon School remains one of the few congregated special needs schools in the province. The students who attend Horizon are mostly autistic, nonverbal, developmentally delayed, or have severe medical conditions. Some students may have started in typical schools and parents may have later decided the special needs school was a better fit.

Manning remembered in the early days that the students would follow the typical curriculum of reading, writing and arithmetic. There was little programming for students with special needs.

She recalled the focus was always child-based but today it’s more focused on the student’s individual needs. At Horizon, students are on a modified education curriculum and follow a learning plan that’s developed for them. Parents play a key role in helping the school team develop the plan.

Throughout the school year, students from neighbouring schools are brought into Horizon to work on projects with the students. Principal Heather Linski says this is known as reverse integration.

The staff to student ratio is flexible and is based on student need not student numbers, which is typical of most classroom settings. There are 20 students, 14 educational assistants, three teachers and an autism service dog.

The school’s programming is coined “beyond the horizon” and helps students find their place in the world, said Linski.

“It’s what they need when they step out the doors,” she said. “We believe every one of our students has an opportunity to learn at the best level at our school. They learn independence, socialization, life skills and lifelong programming opportunities that will carry on in the rest of their lives.”

Horizon boasts a working greenhouse, a sensory room, a fitness room, a computer lab, workshop, an outdoor therapeutic garden, laundry and a kitchen. The school has onsite work experience programs and off-campus learning opportunities with Olds College and other places. There are links to community resources like speech and language therapy, life skills and integration into the community.

“We have a very diverse curriculum here and we are able to offer things that are really hard for a typical school to offer,” said Linski.

Many parents of special needs children say having their child in an congregated school setting allows their child to develop real relationships with their classmates. The Olds community has supported the school and the students throughout the four decades.

While Horizon School marked its fourth decade in the community of less than 10,000 residents, south of Red Deer, at least a few parents are concerned about Alberta Education’s move “to meet the needs of special needs students in a typical classroom setting,” or more plainly, integration.

Horizon School was assured there is a need for a congregated school within the education system.

Parent Kathy Owens is not convinced that integrating special needs children into a typical classroom setting is the best option for both the special needs student and his classmates.

“I think it is a disservice to the kids that have greater needs than a typical classroom is able to address,” said Owens. “The needs in a typical classroom are greater than the general public understands them to be. The number of kids that require any amount of specialized care is higher than most people would ever expect it is.”

Owens said Alberta Education wants children with special needs integrated at an early age to help them get used to the community and vice versa.

“On one level they do, but that is not the best learning environment for everyone,” said Owens. “If education is to address the individual needs of the individual students, those needs are best addressed here for my child. They were not being met before to the degree he required. It wasn’t beneficial to the other kids in his class when he was having a hard day.”

Her son, Kevin, 14, is on the autism spectrum and is now in his fifth year at Horizon.

When he was at a regular elementary school, Owens said, Kevin’s behavioural problems were getting to the point where he was disruptive and he was interfering with the learning of the other children in the classroom.

Likewise, parent Nicole Sharpe knew her son Ethan, seven, who is globally developmentally delayed, would not succeed in a typical classroom. Sharpe commends Alberta Education’s attempt to integrate students in the regular classroom but she says it doesn’t work for every student, particularly those with severe special needs.

Sharpe said her son is at home at Horizon.

“He’s finally able to go to school five full days a week,” said Sharpe. “It’s a blessing. It gives him the structure and the strength in himself to do things for himself.”

Horizon School is an option within the Chinook’s Edge School Division for students with special needs. The school was started by parents in 1971 and joined Chinook’s Edge in 2006. To find out more about Horizon School, visit

— copyright Red Deer Advocate