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Archive for June, 2012

Inclusive education in Canada has found its most ardent champions in New Brunswick, in the Canadian Association for Community Living, and in a number of faculties of education. From his perch in New Brunswick, Dr. Gordon Porter, has played a prominent role, most recently as the Director of Inclusive Education Canada. That is why the recent report on New Brunswick’s inclusive education system, co-authored by Porter and Angela AuCoin,  attracted so much  attention from both  the inclusionists and their critics.

New Brunswick Minister of Education Jody Carr hailed the release of the report in his June 5, 2012 announcement that New Brunswick was reversing its cost cutting course and spending $62 million more over the next three years on implementing inclusive education.  http://www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/news/news_release.2012.06.0494.html  It amounted to a ringing endorsement of the long-awaited report which recommended that the province forge ahead with its 25-year struggle to “transform the thinking of school leaders” and to make the regular classroom the focus of student support services. http://www.gnb.ca/0000/publications/comm/Inclusion.pdf

The Strengthening Inclusion, Strengthening Schools report, produced by the well-known inclusion theorists, may not be the final word on the subject. Striving for the “full inclusion” of all students in the publicly-funded school system is a most worthy goal, but the report’s findings reveal that it is still more of an illusion than a reality in today’s New Brunswick schools, especially for those students with severe learning disabilities or complex needs.

One in ten Canadians reportedly suffers from some kind of learning disability and between 2 % and 4% of New Brunswick’s public school students, numbering from 2,100 to 4,200, are struggling at school with serious learning challenges. The Porter-Aucoin report also acknowledges that a mixed bag of alternative school programs continue to exist, across the districts, serving some 1,000 or so students with significant learning challenges.

Serving growing numbers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder will require flexibility and out-of- the box learning.  Some 1,238 of New Brunswick’s 74,579 Anglophone public school students have now been diagnosed with autism and many already require significant learning supports. It’s fast becoming the biggest challenge facing the province’s regular Kindergarten to Grade 12 schools.

Since the adoption of Wayne MacKay’s 2006 report on Inclusive Education, the province has pursued “full inclusion” in regular classrooms with dogged determination. The Education Department, working closely with Gordon Porter’s Inclusive Education Initiative and the New Brunswick Association for Community Living (NBACL) has become the leading proponent of the “one-size-fits all” regular classroom model.  More recently, the Department has become closely aligned with the NBACL, to the point where their websites virtually mirror one another.

Vocal critics of the current model, like Fredericton autism advocate Harold L. Doherty, charge that the province’s current regime is “philosophy-based” and turns a blind eye to students with “complex needs” who are being marginalized and eventually left by the wayside. http://autisminnb.blogspot.ca/2012/06/building-bigger-tent-is-badly-needed.html  Classroom teachers, lacking the expertise and resource support, according to the NBTA’s Heather Smith, can be overwhelmed by the growing numbers of “students in difficult situations.”

New Brunswick’s full adoption of Inclusive Education since 2006 has certainly tested the limits of the “all-inclusive classroom”  as the answer for all K-8 students and the vast majority of high schoolers.  Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia have all responded to shifts in the composition of the student population by offering more self-contained classes and viable alternative school programs.

The neighbouring province of Nova Scotia provides a stark contrast. There a small number of private, independent Special Education (Grade 3-12) schools have emerged since the 1970s to fill the gap by providing a vitally important “lifeline” in the continuum of student support services.  Demand for such schooling grew after 2000 to the point where the Nova Scotia Education began looking at implementing a provincial tuition support program serving students with more acute learning difficulties.

The Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program (TSP), initiated in September 2004, provides an option for students with special needs who cannot be served at their local public school. It was explicitly intended for short-term purposes and works on the assumption that students can eventually be successfully “transitioned” back into the regular system. The TSP provides funding which covers most of the tuition costs to attend designated special education private schools (DSEPS) and any public alternative education centres that might eventually be established in Nova Scotia.

My AIMS research study, Building a Bigger Tent, provides a detailed cost-benefit analysis of New Brunswick’s implementation of inclusion, identifies a significant hole in the system, and examines the pent-up demand for a full continuum of service, from mainstreaming to self-contained classes to special needs schools.  It rejects the findings of the Porter-Aucoin report and calls for a truly independent, arms-length review, seeking to assess the unmet demand for better alternative “lifeline” programs, meeting the needs simply unable to cope in a regular classroom.http://www.aims.ca/site/media/aims/Building%20a%20Bigger%20Tent.pdf

New Brunswick would benefit from taking a closer look at Nova Scotia’s service delivery model, including Special Education schools and the ground-breaking Tuition Support Program (TSP) rendering them more accessible to families with severely learning challenged children.

The Porter-Aucoin report may have produced more funding for student supports, but without “lifeline school programs” do not expect significantly improved outcomes for severely learning disabled kids. It’s high time that New Brunswick stepped back with a wider lens, started listening more to those currently locked in a system designed by theorists, in the interests of promoting a better educational environment for teachers and students alike.

Who is being ‘left out” or falling by the wayside in the New Brunswick model based upon “full inclusion” for all in a regular classroom, whatever the severity of their needs? What happens to students who cannot cope or thrive in the all-inclusive classroom?  Why do existing special programs and alternative education centres fly so much below the radar in the province?  What can New Brunswick learn from Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Alberta when it comes to support for kids with severe learning disabilities and complex needs?

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Canadian children are suffering from a near epidemic of inactivity that is now reflected in rising obesity rates. Physical inactivity, online adolescence, and poor eating habits have now also been linked to weaker academic performance. A ground breaking series, Fit to Learn, in The Globe and Mail (May 23-29, 2012) put the issue of children’s health squarely on the public agenda.  The dire state of Physical Education programs, alarming rates of child obesity, the ineffectiveness of Healthy Schools policies, and report card BMI fitness grades were all aired out in the series. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/war-on-child-obesity-out-of-the-cafeteria-and-onto-the-playground/article4209692/

What came out of the series of in-depth reports?  An Editorial entitled “Obesity obsession,‘ (29 May 2012) that offered a sobering message to Healthy Schools crusaders in Canada’s provincial education systems.  After noting that the schools had “enough on their plates,” the Editors claimed that “the emphasis on the school’s role is overdone.”  Many schools were already doing a great deal, but “the role of the schools is not to perfect children.” In short, what the schools teach has to be reinforced at home.

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A local battle over a Cake Walk fundraiser, sparked by Halifax-area mother Pamela Lovelace, erupted in early June when the Education Department  issued a new set of guidelines which prohibited a traditional Maritime tradition of  parent association “cake walks” in which calorie-laden cakes are raffled-off to raise money. Her little protest generated quite a groundswell of support, all focused on resistance to Nova Scotia’s school nutrition policy.  Eventually, Minister of Education Ramona Jennex was forced to backtrack in an attempt to calm the waters.  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/parenting/the-fight-to-keep-cake-in-the-classroom/article4240139/

With the controversy still swirling, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter ( June 7, 2012) announced Thrive! , a glitzy $2 million Healthy Living initiative, focusing on combating child obesity, introducing compulsory PE classes, more nutrition programs, and a war on junk food.  http://thechronicleherald.mobi/novascotia/104665-ns-to-spend-2-million-to-fight-childhood-obesity  That initiative came on the heals of an earlier Ontario initiative in September 2011 which clamped down on unhealthy foods and beverages, while allowing up to 10 school days where students can hold pizza sales and even chocolate bar drives.

Fighting child obesity is a worthy cause, but most of the school-based initiatives are merely more of the same, albeit better funded and more targeted than the first wave of Healthy Schools policy activity some five or six years ago. If there is a glimmer of hope for this to work, it will take a larger project aimed at building healthier communities rather than another well-intended effort seeking to impose a new layer of provincial regulation, from cradle to grave.

Nova Scotia’s Thrive! initiative is one of the first to recognize that only a province-wide health and wellness project will make any dent in the problem.  It was announced by the Premier, along with Health Nova Scotia and four provincial departments, in a show of force.   It was mounted using an innovative strategy known as “collective impact” recognizing that no government initiative stands any chance of succeeding unless it is inter-departmental and forges new alliances. http://www.ssireview.org/pdf/2011_WI_Feature_Kania.pdf

The Nova Scotia Healthy Living project is unique in another respect — it is beginning to connect the dots.  No provincial initiative to combat child obesity will work unless it addresses the underlying structural problems, including the brute logic of school consolidation and the siting of schools farther and farther away from children and neighbourhood communities.

Designing and building communities for active healthy living will require a seismic shift in school planning and the siting of schools.  Ten years ago, Noreen C. MacDonald’s study of Active Transportation to School for U.S. students (1969-2001) reported that the number of students walking to school had declined from 40.7% to 12.9 %.  http://dot.ga.gov/localgovernment/FundingPrograms/srts/Documents/news/Trends_Among_US_School_Children.pdf

School siting by education facilities planners has been identified as a major contributing factor.  A ground breaking U.S. EPA study in October 2003, Travel and Environmental Implications of School Siting, identified planning of schools and growing walking distances as a critical strategic issue, with educational, environmental and health implications, as well as financial ones, for the future of communities.  Since 1945, the EPA reported that the number of American public schools had declined by 70 per cent while average school size grew fivefold, from 127 to 653. “School proximity matters,” the report claimed, and bigger schools meant fwer kids walking and longer bus rides, all with serious impacts on air emissions and physical health.  It strongly recommended that travel time to school be elevated to a higher level in state and district school planning.

Today’s child obesity epidemic is shining new light on the way communities are designed and the importance of promoting “active living among children.”  Since the advent of the Internet and video games, kids spend, in the words of Nova Scotia’s CMOH, Dr. Robert Strang,  “too much time sitting” before, during, and after school hours.  “A walkable neighbourhood” is fast becoming the most desirable community for children as well as adults because it encourages everyone to “walk or bike” from home to school to workplace.  Oddly enough, it may take a looming health crisis to restore small community schools to their rightful place in public education and to end those long bus rides to school. “Big box schools, ” Dr. Strang and others are saying, “are unhealthy places.”

What can be done to combat the rise of child obesity among Canadian children and teens?  Are Healthy Schools policies and banning junk food at lunchtime  part of the problem — or the solution?  Will it take a looming public health crisis among today’s younger generation to snap provincial politicians and school board administrators out of their daze?  When will education policy makers wake up to the long-term  impact of school consolidation and long bus rides on children, adults, and community life?

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