How to integrate all students in B.C.’s schools is at the heart of debate over future of education
Eleven-year-old Eric Drysdale with sister Sophia and mom Lori at their home in Vancouver. Eric has a learning disability, so his parents sold their home to send him to private school.
Photograph by: Arlen Redekop , Vancouver Sun
The question of how best to teach students with special needs is at the heart of public education, and forms the controversial core of a long-running court case, rancorous labour negotiations and the ongoing teachers’ strike.
The B.C. Supreme Court has ruled, twice, that teachers’ constitutional rights were violated more than a decade ago when bargaining over class size, class composition and specialist teacher ratios was stripped from their collective agreement. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation, backed by those judicial rulings, would like to see the provisions restored to their contract so that they can negotiate the issues in the future.
The court rulings are under appeal and teachers are on strike after they failed to renegotiate a contract that expired in June 2013, despite more than a year and a half at the bargaining table.
Even if the court case is ultimately resolved in the teachers’ favour, restoring class composition provisions won’t be easy — in the 12 years since 2002, special needs classifications have changed, the terminology has changed, and the concept of inclusion has radically changed the way students with special needs are accommodated in the classroom.
Special needs education is also a constantly changing field — our knowledge of the brain and how it works is developing rapidly, and some say the number of kids being born with special needs is growing. The field is defined by competing philosophies about how limited resources should be allocated.
Meanwhile, it is the kids who are caught in the middle. Because 12 years have passed with no agreement on the issues, an entire generation of students with special needs has passed through the public system as the two sides fight it out.
Kindergarten teacher Lori Drysdale wasn’t going to let her son Eric be one of those kids.
She sold her family’s home to pay for private school, where tuition is $27,000 a year. But for her and her son, who was having emotional meltdowns while in public school, it’s a price worth paying.
Eric, who has a learning disability, started his education in public school. Lori held him back a year to give him the best chance, but by the time he started Grade 1, he was at the very bottom of his reading group. The teacher told Lori to give him time to catch up, but Lori knew it was a learning disability preventing her son from keeping pace with the other students.
She paid for educational testing herself, knowing that it could take years on a waiting list otherwise.
“I felt like we had no other choice,” Lori said. “I’ve seen it so often that it takes until Grade 5 for them to be assessed.”
The testing showed a non-verbal processing disability that is a working memory problem. As a toddler, it meant Eric mixed his words up. As a primary student, it meant difficulties learning to read or switching from social studies to math.
By the time he was finished Grade 3, he was frequently in tears and exhausted every day after school.
“I sat my husband down and said, ‘There are no services for him at school. This is going to be a very expensive child’,” Lori said.
There were 57,242 children (about 10 per cent of all B.C. public school students) identified as having special needs in 2013-2014. Of those, 25,117 are classified as eligible for supplemental special needs funding.
According to the terminology used in the industry: “Level 1” students — those who are dependent handicapped, deaf or blind — are entitled to $36,600 annually in additional funding. “Level 2” students — those with moderate to profound intellectual disabilities, those who are physically disabled, those with chronic health impairments, are visually impaired, deaf or hearing impaired, or autistic — are entitled to $18,300 in additional funding. And “Level 3” students — those who need intensive behaviour intervention or who have a serious mental illness — are entitled to $9,200 in additional funding. (All figures are in addition to the $6,900 provided annually to districts for each enrolled student.)
The remaining 32,125 students with other special needs, such as learning disabilities, do not receive targeted funding to address their learning needs, but the basic funding does cover some services for special needs students.
Drysdale emphasized that these numbers are low because many students are never identified as having special needs, or are on a waiting list for many years to be identified as such.
“Of the special needs students, there are often many, many more that have yet to be identified,” Lori said. “There is no extra funding for children with learning disabilities, but there is funding for children with autism. And some children with learning disabilities have needs just like autistic kids do, but there are no services for them.”
Just as not every family can afford the $2,500 or more that a formal psych-educational assessment might cost, not every mother is a teacher who has been trained to recognize learning disabilities in a child.
Drysdale said many families are not aware that their child has a learning disability, and if they realize something is up, they don’t push the issue at school because they don’t want to end up selling their home to pay for private education.
The rules in place before the controversial 2002 changes stated that a classroom should have no more than three special needs students, identified as those with an individual education plan. IEPs are used for a wide range of students who require extra support, including those who are gifted, learning disabled, behaviourally challenged, or have other special needs. The government says those rules, like class size restrictions, are too rigid and can create situations where extra classes need to be created to accommodate one extra student. The BCTF says there is flexibility, for example, to reduce the size of a class to make up for having more than three special needs students in a classroom.
Turning back the clock to 2002 would not be easy because so much has changed.
“The ways in which students have been designated as having special needs, the categories of designation, and our services delivery models have all changed substantially,” wrote Jordan Tinney, Surrey’s superintendent of schools, in his affidavit supporting the government’s request for a stay of decision during the appeal.
Today, there are 16,163 classrooms in the province with four or more students with special needs, and the BCTF says there are 3,800 classes with seven or more special needs students. Meanwhile, the total number of students in the province’s public schools has dropped from 621,199 in 2002-2003 to 558,985 today, but the percentage with special needs has remained fairly stable at 10 per cent.
The teachers’ employer says special needs education is taken care of through the Learning Improvement Fund, a $75-million fund that is allocated to supporting complex classrooms and is over and above the per-student funding and extra funding for kids with certain special needs. BCPSEA estimates that it would cost more than $1 billion a year to return to 2002 service levels, while the BCTF is asking for a $225-million annual fund to hire new teachers and deal with class size and composition issues.
Susan Teasdale, a Vancouver resource teacher, said that she taught an extremely challenging inner-city kindergarten class several years ago. There were seven students with severe learning disabilities and only one support worker to help her. She said one child had autism, three others were not designated and had young single mothers who did not believe their children had learning disabilities, two little girls had severe depression, and another was receiving counselling outside of school.
“Hard to believe, but true. I did the best I could. I had little time for the other thriving students most days,” Teasdale said in an email.
Further complicating classrooms is the rising number of English Language Learner students. Fully one-in-10 B.C. students are learning English as a Second Language, and in some schools — notably in Richmond, Surrey and Vancouver — ELL learners make up more than half of the students in a classroom.
Despite the growing numbers of complex classrooms, more students with special needs are completing high school in B.C. than ever before, according to Ministry of Education figures. The six-year completion rate for students with special needs has increased from 33.4 per cent in 2000-01 to 58.7 per cent in 2012-13, the ministry says.
The B.C. Ministry of Education’s policy of inclusion says that students with special needs are entitled to equitable access to learning, achievement and the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of their education. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the North Vancouver school district discriminated against a dyslexic student when it cut services that were essential to him. Although the ruling was very specific to the student and program in question, at the time, Margot Young, an associate law professor at the University of B.C., said the court’s decision requires all school boards to think carefully about potential discriminatory impacts when terminating services to balance budgets.
This spring, completely apart from the teachers’ labour dispute, Lower Mainland school boards eliminated hundreds of jobs to balance their budgets, which were not increased this year despite a wage increase given to support staff, rising hydro costs and escalating MSP premiums.
Inclusion should include a classroom that reflects the diverse conditions in a community, said Faith Bodnar, executive director of Inclusion B.C., a provincial non-profit organization that works with children and youth with special needs as well as adults with developmental disabilities.
“(Special needs education) shouldn’t be used as a football in negotiations between the different parties in the education system,” Bodnar said. “I think teachers should be supported to meet the learning needs of all students in their classroom, whether that’s through teachers’ assistants or individualized instruction. But we shouldn’t use these things as a way of addressing issues not related to students, like wages.”
Bodnar said special needs students should not be grouped together based on their physical or developmental attributes, but should be in a classroom that is as diverse as their neighbourhood.
“When you’re segregated on that basis, it’s a form of discrimination,” Bodnar said.
Bodnar said because districts have discretion in how special needs funding is used, there is a wide variety of practices throughout the province. She said parents might like to see classroom assistants be designated more often to a specific student, rather than to a classroom generally, as is often done, but as long as there is accountability for the resources and good communication in place, it works well to have the money not be attached directly to the student.
When Drysdale saw her son spiralling downward as he struggled in the regular classroom and knew he would have no guaranteed funding or services, she and her husband made the decision to enrol him in Grade 4 at the Fraser Academy, a not-for-profit school for children with language-based learning disabilities where class sizes are capped at 10 students. She expects her son to stay until graduation.
Eric gets one-on-one tutoring there every day, and his mom says that after two complete years at the school, he is now reading at his appropriate grade level.
In the public system, she says, he would probably get pulled out only once or twice a week and that would still be in a group, not individually.
“Eric has positive friendships and feels good about himself. That was really evident his second year at Fraser Academy,” Lori said. “And importantly, Eric’s self-esteem is intact too, whereas at the end of Grade 3 in public school, Eric was really suffering.”
Although the solution for Eric was private school, Lori insists public schools and public school teachers are doing the best with what they’ve got. She says she hopes all children with learning disabilities could receive the services that her son gets.
For Surrey school superintendent Tinney, it is clear that “inclusion” in the school system has profoundly changed, and the only way to address that change is through a conversation at the bargaining table.
“If you think about how far the medical profession has come in 12 years, think of how far brain research has come in 12 years. We know so much more now about what it is to have a learning disability, and we take more factors into account when designating students and the way in which we provide support to students. It isn’t as simple as just turning back the clock (to 2002). That reconciliation of today’s practice with old language has to be done through a conversation,” Tinney said.
Given the acrimonious relationship between the teachers and the government, does Tinney think a conversation that puts the interests of kids first is even possible?
“I believe absolutely that both sides can do that. What choice do they have? I believe fundamentally that the government and the BCTF both care about children. Somehow there has to be a meeting of the ways. It isn’t for me to say how that’s done,” Tinney said. “Here we are faced with a very difficult problem, layered with legal complexity and collective language and bargaining. It’s an extremely tough place to be, and the only people that can resolve this are the government and the BCTF.”