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Aid Kids with Special Needs: Study

Report slams chronic 'underfunding' in BC schools.

Tom Sandborn 18 Jan

Tom Sandborn is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Finding: Most vulnerable underserved.

"I feel that these children are being punished, whether it is by ignoring, dismissing, or isolating, or a lack of resources, for something that came with birth. Why do we make the uphill battle even more difficult for them?" -- Parent of a special needs student, quoted in Langley Special Education Inquiry Report.

Special needs students in B.C. are not getting the support they need, their overburdened teachers are wracked with "disillusionment," and too little government funding gets much of the blame, a new report suggests.

Eleven months in the making, the extensively researched document says special education services for some of the province's most vulnerable kids are inadequate not only in School District #35 Langley, where the research was focused, but across the province.

The report says in some instances special needs students are left "wandering the halls" because resource room teachers are unavailable and appropriate courses are not open to them. At least one Langley district resource room teacher is carrying a caseload of 70 students this year.

The report also criticizes "the lack of appropriate support for classroom teachers who have students with special needs integrated into their classrooms."

'Low priority'

Special needs students make up about 10 per cent of all students in B.C., with gifted children accounting for two to three per cent more.

But the special needs of many more may not be known to the educational system. The panel of experts guiding the research expressed "concern" that under the province's current funding formula, students identified to have learning disabilities do not draw more funding for their schools, and so "the assessment of their needs has become a low priority."

Many parents are taking on "considerable burdens" spending their own money to have their children privately assessed for special learning needs because the wait times in public schools for assessments is up to two years, said the report.

A mental health worker told the panel that under-serving special needs students causes a chain reaction that harms communities, as many of the students drop out or are expelled, and then join gangs.

The report also says high school graduation levels for special needs students have held consistent at about 69 per cent, 10 points lower than the average for all students.

'Historical underfunding'

The three-person panel that produced the inquiry report included Nadene Guiltner, a recently retired public school teacher, Dr. Shirley McBride, formerly with the education departments at the University of Saskatchewan, SFU and UBC and the B.C. Ministry of Education, and Mike Suddaby, former superintendent of schools in Maple Ridge.

The panel blames "historical underfunding of special education in the province, which was exacerbated historically by imposed settlements that were not funded and from which the system has never recovered, despite some increases in education funding since that time.

"The primary victims of this shortfall have been non-enrolling personnel such as special education teachers, counselors and librarians."

Langley Teachers' Association second vice president Gail Chaddock-Costello told The Tyee that Langley teachers have seen more special needs students dropping out of school recently, and fewer graduating.

She also said the increased workload and lack of support is leading to teacher burnout and some experienced teachers leaving the system.

Burnout victim

Katy Phillips is one of those burnout survivors who sees herself as forced out of the classroom by inadequate funding and an "overwhelming" caseload.

Formerly a special education teacher in Langley, Phillips left the district last year and now teaches in Alberta.

"I saw bad impacts on students," she told The Tyee. "I saw so many of them frustrated, and I saw high school students starting to give up and fail because they didn't get the help they needed. As a teacher I ended up spending far too much time doing paper work and struggling with a caseload that swamped me. We have got to put kids first again."

Chaddock-Costello called the Langley report "an indictment of the provincial government and its education policies."

"The government stripped teacher contracts in 2002, taking out provisions we had bargained that gave up pay increases in trade for better conditions for our students. Since then we have seen teacher caseloads go up dramatically, with resource teachers now carrying caseloads of 30-45 special needs kids.

"Before contract stripping, no resource teacher had a caseload of more than 15 kids," she added. "I was a resource teacher in Langley before contract stripping, and with 15 kids on my caseload, I was a busy person."

"It's important for British Columbians to know that the percentage of our provincial economy going into education has gone down in the past years," she said. "Per-capita, B.C. is investing less in education than any other province."

Board of education opted out

The inquiry leading to Thursday's report was a joint project of the Langley Teachers' Association, the District Parent Advisory Council and CUPE Local 1260.

The Langley district board and administrators declined to participate formally in the inquiry, although a few trustees attended public sessions.

When asked why the district board and administrators didn't participate in the inquiry, Craig Spence, the communications manager for Langley School District replied by e-mail saying:

"The composition of classes with regard to Special Needs students is governed by the School Act and Langley School District meets or exceeds the requirements of the School Act. There are procedures in place for consulting with individual teachers with regard to class composition. Langley School District also has processes and procedures in place for working with education partners with regard to matters like special services. The board of education did not feel it would be appropriate to participate in an inquiry that was established outside what is already in place for discussing such matters with its partners. The Langley Teachers' Association is welcome at any time to bring questions or comments forward to the board or senior staff at Langley School District."

'Shocked' at lack of resources

A mother of a Langley special needs student whose school was closed told the panel she "checked out many Langley schools to see which could best help my child and I was shocked to find they are all lacking in resources."

She wondered what administrators were doing with savings achieved by her child's school closing.

"Some of that money should go to providing services at the new school. Well, that is not the case; they are overburdened. When you add special needs students from both schools together you get many classes of 5 or more special needs kids," she said.

She added: "My question is how can a teacher teach in a classroom where there are six or seven [special needs] identified students -- on top of that, you add children with behaviour issues and slow learners. Sure you give the teacher one aid but she is told they won't start first thing in the morning and will not be there all day, nor will it be every day. So what are they trying to say -- my child is only disabled on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On Tuesday and Thursday you don't need help? They're cured?"

Members of Langley's board of education would not be attending the official launch of the inquiry panel's report, Spence told The Tyee.

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