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Archive for the ‘Special Program Schools’ Category

A feature story in the Weekend Globe and Mail on January 6, 2019 has successfully opened the door to far more meaningful public discussion of inclusive education, from province to province, right across Canada. National Education reporter Caroline Alphonso did so by posing the right question and re-framing the whole conversation. “Are inclusive classrooms failing students?” is just the kind of question that breaks new ground by inviting responses from a much wider range of perspectives.

The initial story focused on Grayson Kahn, a 7-year-old- boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and the incredible struggles of his mother Lisa Kahn and father Dave to get their son’s needs addressed at John McCrae P.S. in Guelph, Ontario. Diagnosed with ASD in the summer of 2017, Grayson was “excluded” from attending school because of that school’s inability to meet his complex needs.  The story hit a nerve because it highlighted the plight of hundreds children like Grayson either on reduced timetables or excluded in schools across the country.

Most readers were shocked to learn that in the Ontario school system, among the most inclusive and resource-rich anywhere, children like Grayson were being marginalized and poorly served in their public schools. Upon closer scrutiny, they learned that the system-wide philosophy, for decades, has been one that welcomed students with special needs into the regular classroom. It came as news to many that, faced with behavioural problems and regularly disrupted classrooms, principals had resorted to sending children home for part of the week or months on end.

Schools across Canada, since the 1990s, have fully embraced an enlightened model of inclusive education and attempted to implement it right across the board. One of Canada’s province’s, New Brunswick, has gone so far as to adopt the “Zero Project” philosophy in an attempt to integrate every student, irrespective of the severity of their disabilities, into regular classrooms. Leading education provinces, such as Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta, support inclusive education, but recognize the need for a variety of additional support programs and services.

The Globe and Mail feature reopened the fierce debate among competing factions, all of whom are committed to improving inclusive education. Many are asking whether we now have a system of inclusive education in theory but not necessarily in practice. It is becoming more widely recognized that the current model was never designed to accommodate and serve the incredible range of student needs present in today’s classrooms. The rise in the prevalence of children diagnosed with ASD alone is enough to overwhelm teachers attempting to manage their classes, with or without Education Assistants. Many Special Education experts now acknowledge that inclusion is not working and it’s not just a matter of the shortage of EAs or the lack of resources.

The Inclusive Education Debate tends to be polarized around three distinct policy positions, each exemplified in opinion pieces generated in response to the initial Globe and Mail story:

1) Students with Severe Learning Challenges and Complex Needs should not be excluded from regular public schools, especially for prolonged periods, and its a school district’s responsibility to either accommodate those children in regular classes or find viable options (Laura Kirby-McIntosh and Ontario Autism Coalition)

2) Inclusive Education is not working because of inconsistencies in implementation and the rationing of resources in the form of resource supports such as psychological services, para-professionals, and/or education assistants. Hiring more support personnel is the answer to realizing the potential of inclusion ( Gordon Porter and Inclusive Education Canada)

3) Inclusive Classrooms are highly desirable, but can never accommodate the range of needs, especially those with severe learning disabilities and complex needs. For a small proportion of children with complex needs (3 to 5 per cent) school districts need to support or provide the option of  alternative school programs and/or “congregated schools.” (Phil Richmond, Hayley Avruskin and the Congregated School Parent Network)

A growing consensus is forming that the conventional inclusion model, exemplified by the ‘one-size-fits-all’ classroom, has passed the breaking point. In the case of Grayson Kahn and hundreds of children like him, it’s not working now and it’s highly unlikely that simply pouring more resources into that classroom will resolve the problem. What’s surprising, however, is the reluctance of the competing factions to look at more flexible alternative delivery models.

No one, so far, has really gone beyond restating their positions and few, if any, have referenced the findings and recommendations of the Nova Scotia Inclusive Education Commission, published in the March 2018 report, Students First. Produced by Dr, Sarah Shea, Adela Njie, and Monica Williams, it represents a concrete attempt to break the policy gridlock. It differs from most policy initiatives, particularly those promoted by Inclusive Education Canada, in laying the groundwork for a re-invented model which is far more flexible and built around a “multi-tiered continuum of programs, services and settings.” 

Six months ago, Nova Scotia adopted this new Inclusive Education model that embraced inclusive education as a core philosophy, while implementing a re-engineered model based upon a “multi-tiered system of supports.”  All Nova Scotia students would be welcomed in a Tier 1 inclusive classroom and school environment, but students identified with severe learning challenges or complex needs would be provided with greatly enhanced supports through Tier 2 (Small Group), and then Tier 3 (Intensive – Individual or Alternative Program) options.

Educating the Grayson’s in today’s classrooms will require a more realistic, evidence-based, and effective approach to implementing inclusive education. It is time we confronted and tackled the “elephant in the inclusive classroom” and considered a more flexible and responsive way forward.

Why are inclusive classrooms failing so may children?  If our public school classrooms cannot accommodate all children, don’t school authorities have a responsibility to develop alternative support programs and services?  Should school districts be sending challenging students home and leaving families to fend for themselves? Why has the new Nova Scotia model attracted so little attention outside that province? 

 

 

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Melissa Jones teared up in late November 2017 talking to the Fredericton Daily Gleaner about the plight of her son, Grade 4 student Brayden Jones. Leafing through a box full  of school warning letters and suspension notices for his school behaviour, she was upset and frustrated with her local school’s latest policy of limiting her son to three hours a week for “soft-re-entry” to the regular school classroom.  The past four years have been hellish for the family because, as a result of Brayden’s behaviour outbursts, he had been on a reduced schedule and out of school altogether from November 2016 to October 2017. “He’s not getting any education,” Ms. Jones said. “They’re setting him up for failure.”

A nine-year old boy with autism, Alex Piper of Quispamsis, NB, was suspended from his elementary school in November 2017 for  a series of violent outbursts and the school district’s solution was to restrict the student to 30 minutes of class time per day. His father, Jeremy Piper, a 40-year-old RCMP officer, protested the decision to “kick-out” his son without providing any incident reports and for only allowing his son back for what amounted to three 10-minute classes between 8:45 and 9:15 am each day. “They consider this an education, I guess, ” he told CBC News New Brunswick. 

Saint John parent Heather Adams says the New Brunswick education system also failed her autistic son, Brian,who graduated from high school in 2015 with kindergarten-level reading and Grade 2 math skills. “He would come home from school saying, ‘I feel so stupid, I don’t want to go’,” she recalled.  “And I don’t think anybody should have to go to school and feel stupid, and that’s how he felt.” While she maintains that inclusive education can work for some students,”it failed Brian.”

Heartbreaking stories like these are now surfacing regularly in the Atlantic Canadian province of New Brunswick. Over the past year, a steady stream of distraught parents of students with severe learning challenges have spoken-out with personal stories of how the current model of inclusion has failed their children. A year ago, the President of the NBTA, Guy Arsenault, broke his silence and expressed alarm over the physical threats faced by teachers forced to wear “kevlar” vests to protect themselves.

All of this is happening in a provincial school system recognized in February 2016 by the global Zero Project human rights organization for championing the inclusion of all students in regular classrooms.  It is becoming clearer that the New Brunswick model is broken and badly needs to be re-engineered to better serve those with severe challenges and complex needs.

spedclasscomposition

 

A year ago, NBTA president Arsenault painted quite a picture of today’s high school English class.  Out of 28 registered students, 12 have identified special education needs, 10-11 cannot write and require oral exams, five are chronically absent, three have ADHD or ADD, two have mental health issues, two speak little English, and only two read at the expected grade level.  That is why, he insisted, “class composition” is now the biggest concern of teachers.

Class composition and inclusion have also been linked to declining student achievement levels.  In October 2016, Education Minister Brian Kenny and Arsenault agreed that it was a factor in the latest abysmal Anglophone Education test results. Only 20 per cent of Grade 6 students met provincial standards in mathematics and 26 per cent in science. In reading assessment, only 54 per cent scored successful standing.

All of this evidence merely confirms the findings of my recent research comparing New Brunswick’s inclusive system with other provinces across Canada. It’s all there in my two researchED presentations in Washington, DC (October 2016) and Toronto (November 2017).

Since June 2012, when NB Education Minister Jody Carr reaffirmed the province’s unshakable commitment to “inclusion for all,” things have gotten far worse. Spending $62-million to shore up the existing model from 2013-2016 has made no appreciable difference. Between 2 % and 4% of all students, numbering 1,900 to 3,800 students are struggling with severe learning challenges and limited to 3 hours a week of supports. Perhaps as many as 1,200 of New Brunswick’s Anglophone students have Autism Spectrum Disorder and require significantly more specialized support far exceeding the three hours per week.

In March 2016, Arsenault shocked many with the revelation that New Brunswick teachers were facing “unacceptable” levels of violence in both their “frequency and severity.” “Some teachers, ” he told CBC News, “have to wear Kevlar because of the biting that is going on with students and some of the kicking and punching…” Then he added: “We feel that students are entitled and have a right to be in classrooms but it should not be at the detriment of others.”

New Brunswick Autism activist Harold Doherty, father of Connor Doherty, a 21-year-old with severe autism, intellectual disability and epilepsy, has been fighting for a fuller continuum of support services for more than a decade.  Year after year, he sees evidence gathering that the NB model is contributing to the problem.  It’s simply wrong, he contends, to think that one program could ever meet the needs of every student.  “It’s a huge mistake,” he says, to ignore students being failed by the system.  He’s also convinced that the province has to abandon it’s model based upon well-intentioned theory in favour of evidence-based program responses based upon “what works for each child.”

With the New Brunswick model imploding, a rough consensus is emerging that will bring that province more into line with the Canadian leaders in inclusive education, Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. The neighbouring province of Nova Scotia already offers more program options, including a Tuition Support Program (TSP) providing improved access to specialized program schools.    “For inclusion to work, ” Arsenault’s NBTA successor George Daley recently stated, ” the system must fit the student instead of trying to make the student fit the system.” Five years after my June 2012 AIMS report, Building a Bigger Tent, the key message seems to be sinking-in up in New Brunswick.

Why has the New Brunswick model imploded over the past five years? What’s standing in the way of inclusive education reform in New Brunswick? What can that province learn from other Canadian provinces about what works for the full range of special needs students? What can be done to promote evidence-based policy in New Brunswick and elsewhere in Canada? 

 

 

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The Director of Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Dr. John Malloy, is, once again, on the hot seat for attempting to limit school choice in public education.  On October 24, 2017,  facing a severe public backlash, Malloy was quick to distance himself from a TDSB draft report recommendation calling for the phasing out of the board’s arts-focused schools. Whether it revealed his ‘hidden agenda’ is another matter altogether.

TDSBMalloyActionWhile Director Malloy ‘walked back’ from that particular TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force recommendation, it was abundantly clear that TDSB under Malloy is prepared to stand firm on implementing its own version of “enhancing equity” for all students. That’s also perfectly consistent with Malloy’s stance while serving as Director of the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board from 2009 to 2014. As a chief superintendent, he’s well known for putting in motion “educational equity” projects that seek to limit school choice in public education and threaten the existence of specialized program schools.

Malloy is heavily invested in the TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force and its core mission.  In his introductory video, explaining the TDSB initiative, he professes to be a champion of the board’s ” long-standing commitment to equity and inclusion” and expresses concern that it is not being fully met, judging from the persisting inequities affecting ‘racialized’ and ‘marginalized’ students.  His lead facilitator, Liz Rykert goes further in identifying the supposed source of those inequities: “There are barriers, creating divisions with schools, or between schools. The impact has been more inequitable outcomes.”

Specialized programs and streaming of Grade 9 students stand in the way of that “commitment” and are the real targets of the TDSB Task Force.  “Our commitment stands,” Malloy declares in the video. “We want schools to be inclusive, engaging environments for each and every student. That means things must change. We also know that change is hard. It impacts us. We need to work together to make it happen.”

Malloy’s metal was tested in Hamilton and he barely survived the battle.  Pushing hard for school closures in 2013-14, he ran smack up against a public uprising when he went to war with a popular high school principal Paul Beattie and forced through the closure of Parkview School, Hamilton’s highly-acclaimed high school for special needs students.

After placating parents and students by promising to transfer Beattie with them to Mountain S.S., he reneged on that commitment and aroused a storm of student protest in September of 2014. Shortly after the October 2014 trustee election, Malloy was seconded to the Ministry of Education and left town. While Malloy was considering his options, former principal Beattie, now retired, surfaced as a senior advisor to a Citizen Forum organized to serve as a watchdog on the HWDSB.

Malloy’s TDSB initiative sprung out of TDSB research  over the past decade on the uneven academic performance of racial groups and a 2017 OISE study of the board’s specialized arts programs.  Conducted by OISE professor Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, the study found that three of the four TDSB arts program schools were populated primarily with students who were white and drawn disproportionately from the city’s more affluent districts. It also criticized the schools for offering a curriculum reflecting “a traditional Eurocentric view of the arts,” including orchestral music, ballet, studio painting, and sculpture.

The author of the OISE report, used to justify the TDSB Task Force’s mandate, was openly hostile to the arts-focused schools. “These are public schools, ” he told CBC News. ” The public is paying for these schools.” Based upon his survey findings, he added, they were “kind of like private schools within a public system.”  It’s statements like this that tend to breed suspicion about what’s really driving the TDSB agenda.

Students and parents at Toronto’s special program schools are fighting back, including many from diverse ethno-cultural backgrounds.  “It really comes as a shock,” said Frank Hong, a student at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute. He’s in the TOPS program, which specializes in math, sciences, and language arts. “[These programs are] an essential part of the school community,” he told CBC News, ” and to take them away from communities and from potential future students is horrible.”  Threatening to cancel the programs caused “a lot of outrage” on social media, said Niam Pattni, a student in the MaCS program at William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute.

The adverse public reaction, capped by a Toronto newspaper column by The Globe and Mail‘s Marcus Gee, prompted Malloy and his Task Force to pull back on outright advocacy and to explain that these were just “draft recommendations.” Most of the public response tended to echo Gee’s Don’t Kill Specialty Schools” plea and to point out that there were far better ways to close the achievement gap and to promote equality in the school system.

Few who are familiar with Toronto’s alternative and specialty schools, including those for special needs students, would swallow the argument that they are simply “citadels of white privilege.” The TDSB, for all its shortcomings, is still a leader in providing a tremendous array of school options for students and parents, demonstrating every day that there are a multitude of different ways to reach and engage students.

Tampering with what works in education is not the best way forward. Reading the fine print in the TDSB Task Force report, it all comes to a vote when the TDSB Board of Trustees meet on December 13, 2017.  We’ll all be watching.

What’s the real objective of Dr. John Malloy’s TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force? Who wins when school systems eliminate lighthouse programs and limit choice for students and parents?  Since when are “specialty schools” a high priority problem? Does a school system become stronger by lopping-off or trimming its centres of excellence? Who would really benefit if the Toronto DSB cut its special programs and ‘lowered all boats in the water’? 

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