Half of elementary principals have told students with special needs to stay home from school for all or some of the day, in part because there’s not enough help for them, a province-wide survey has found.
“We were really surprised by the finding, said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, which surveyed 1,349 Ontario schools and for the first time asked about forcing children to stay home after hearing numerous complaints from parents.
The research and advocacy group recommends the Ontario government put enough resources in schools so that this “widespread practice” doesn’t continue.
“Principals gave a lot of different and understandable reasons — to do with safety or that the child couldn’t cope being at school,” said Kidder. “But the biggest reason for them not being there is lack of support.”
The report identifies a number of concerns around special education, including too-large ratios of students to special education teachers, as well as caps on how many students a principal can refer for psychological assessment — sometimes just two per year.
At Adam Beck public school in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood, more than a dozen children with autism are served by the equivalent of 1.5 assistants.
Jen Charron’s son Reid, in Grade 2, has Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the “high functioning” end of the spectrum. He’s in a mainstream classroom and does receive help from a special needs assistant intermittently during the day.
“(The assistant’s) schedule varies and she helps and supports a lot of kids in the school,” said Charron, who has gone into the school herself to assist her son. “I know that the school tries to work out how she can be in two places at once sometimes.”
With help, Reid, 7, “does really well, and when he doesn’t have support, he has a harder time, and the teacher has a harder time,” she said, adding he might have trouble getting his own work done or disrupt the entire class.
Amanda Wood, a mother of three who volunteers at the school, has written to the board and education ministry. Kindergarten students, who have autism and who aren’t toilet trained, go to the washroom accompanied by a classroom buddy rather than an adult, she said. In the classroom, teachers’ attention is now “fully engaged in safety and away from strong instructional practices.”
“At what point does the TDSB and ministry intervene and recognize . . . that we are advocating for the basic right of every child to learn in a safe and caring environment? How can our staff and school be expected to provide such an environment without proper supports in place?”
Anne Seymour, co-ordinating superintendent of special education for the Toronto District School Board, said she’d take a look at what is happening at Adam Beck, but that staff there have been specially trained and extra resources have been made available.
Over the past decade, the province has increased special education funding by 67 per cent, to $2.72 billion, serving roughly one in five students.
In a written statement, Education Minister Liz Sandals said the province is phasing in a new funding model over the next four years that “will provide greater fairness and equity in the education system to ensure our most vulnerable students are getting the support they need.”
Kidder said under the new formula, some boards will receive more money, and some less, but funding is not the only issue: there’s also a lack of consistency to special education across the province.
“Underneath all of this, notwithstanding everybody’s best efforts, we still haven’t quite managed to say ‘these are the kinds of programs that should be in all boards, these are the programs that work best’ … we need to get a hold of what works well, what makes a difference.”