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Posts Tagged ‘Inclusion’

A hard lesson in public education is being learned in one of the most unlikely places, the Canadian East Coast province of Nova Scotia, better known by license plates emblazoned with the motto “Canada’s Ocean Playground.”  The earth has shaken. That province has just survived its first protracted teacher dispute and the first teachers’ strike in the 122-year history of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

Here’s the backstory and a few questions raised by the bitter, divisive teacher dispute — where there are no clear winners and the provincial school system with 400 schools, 118,000 students, and 9,300 teachers shows few signs of recovery.

nsteachersstrike2017After 16 months of negotiations, three rejected teacher contracts, a 6-week work-to-rule, and a one day province-wide strike, Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil Liberal government finally brought the teachers’ dispute to an end. Under Bill 75, the province’s 9,300 unionized teachers were legislated back to work on February 22, almost a week ago.

With Nova Scotia Teachers Union supporters in the streets, the province’s reputed ‘Education Premier’ made a rare and startling admission: “decades” of education policy errors – including his own – had contributed to a full-blown education crisis.  Limiting teacher salary increases to 3% over 4 years was a key factor, but somehow did not factor in his thinking.

Reversing the former NDP Government’s education cuts helped catapult the Liberals into office in October 2013, and it was not supposed to work out this way.

Since 2013, McNeil’s government had invested almost $59-million in P-12 education to restore the depleted “learning supports” model. Reducing Grade 4 to 6 class sizes, hiring 59 math mentors, reactivating 114 Reading Recovery teachers, and adding more math and literacy supports simply band-aided the system’s endemic, festering problems.

Now the Premier was conceding that his own rather scattered “classroom investments” had “missed the mark.” Yet, amidst the education chaos, it appeared to be happening again.

Frustrated and angry teachers, emboldened by a few thousand placard-carrying NSTU protesters, came before the N.S. Law Amendments Committee not only seeking to block the back-to-work legislation.

They were also demanding immediate cures for a whole raft of legitimate complaints: a broken inclusion model, ‘no fail’ social promotion, chronic absenteeism, ‘do-over’ student assessment, increasing violence in the classroom, bulging high school class sizes, time-consuming data collection, and managerial excesses eroding teacher autonomy.

Concerned Nova Scotia parents and teachers are both demanding immediate correctives without really addressing the structural sources of what American social planner Horst Rittel  once termed a ‘wicked problem.’

A wicked problem is one that defies quick fixes and proves difficult or impossible to solve for a variety of reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the range of people and opinions involved, the prohibitive costs of resolution, or the complications presented by its interconnected nature.

Today’s school system is the product of a steady, repetitive stream of ‘progressive’ curriculum initiatives, overlaid since the mid-1990s with managerial reforms such as student achievement testing and school quality accreditation.

The P-12 public school system, like most in Canada, is now completely riddled with contradictions.  Curriculum innovations are almost constantly at odds with new system demands for managerial efficiency, student testing, and public accountability.

Curriculum and pedagogy or favoured teaching practices tend to support student-centred learning and incredibly labour-intensive practices, such as differentiated learning, authentic assessment, and ‘coding’ special needs students with ‘adaptations’ and individual program plans.

School authorities, ensconced in the Education Department and regional boards, now impose many external mandates, almost always delivered “top-down” on principals as well as classroom teachers. Vociferous complaints about “data collection” are code for the groundswell of school-level resistance to the system-wide imposition of technological initiatives (Power School and TIENET) or time-consuming provincial tests.

Inclusion is a ‘wicked problem’ of the highest order.  While the vast majority of parents and teachers claim that “the current model is not working,” they persist in believing that investing more in the regular classroom will make things better for special needs students, including those with severe learning challenges and complex needs.

Class composition not necessarily class size was the biggest concern of Canadian teachers in the Canadian Teachers Federation 2012 national survey, but it took a teacher contract upheaval to get Nova Scotia teachers finally talking out of school. Most are clamouring for more “learning supports” rather than holding out for a more permanent fix – a total re-engineering of Nova Scotia special education services.

After sixteen months of negotiations and three recommended agreements, the Bill 75 settlement will likely survive a court challenge. That was NSTU lawyer Ron Pink’s preliminary assessment. Unlike the Nova Scotia context, much of the British Columbia Teachers Federation decision turned on the B.C. government’s aversion to bargaining and arbitrary removal of class size and composition limits.

Establishing provincial commissions or committees to address inclusion and classroom conditions cuts little ice with frontline teachers, accustomed as they are to conflicted mandates and pointless paper exercises. Hashing out “working conditions” with or without an arbitrator is met with understandable skepticism.

Switching premiers every four years has not worked, so far. Education ministers come and go, but the so-called “iron cage” of education, protected by layers of bureaucracy and regulation remains essentially unchanged.

Looking for a better path forward?  Be bold enough to: Go to the root of the “wicked problem” and do not settle, once again, for watering the tree and rearranging the branches. Get on with undoing the failing program initiatives and rebuilding the system from the schools-up for the sake of today’s students.

What are the hard lessons to be learned from the Nova Scotia teacher dispute? How well are students served when Work-to-Rule ends, only to be replaced by Work-to-Contact?  Will other education authorities study the conflict in order to avert similar consequences?  Who will be the first to stand up and tackle the “wicked problem” of internal contradiction and self-defeating policy initiatives? 

 

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A recent news segment on CTV National News, aired October 7, 2015, focused on the outrage expressed by parents of a British Columbia boy with Down Syndrome upon discovering that their son, Deacon, age 7, had been repeatedly been confined to a so-called “quiet room” – a small, windowless space designed for disruptive students. “I think it’s awful,” said father Kirk Graham. “It breaks my heart for my son.” He and his wife Jackie were so upset that they pulled their son out of school in protest. “This needs to stop,” Mr. Graham added. “Nobody should be put in a lockdown room.”

TimeOutBoyBC2015QuietRoomBCSchoolThe Salmon Arm, BC, case is not an isolated instance. A British Columbia report, Stop Hurting Kids, commissioned by Inclusion BC and the Family Support Institute in November 2013, identified 200 examples of children being left alone in everything from windowless offices to padded rooms to a gym equipment closet. Roughly half of the examples involved “seclusion” for periods as long as 3 hours; about one-in-three of the examples involved imposing physical restraints. An estimated 72 per cent of parents reported that their child suffered “emotional trauma.” Most concerning of all, somewhere between half and three-quarters of the parents only learned about the “isolation” through someone outside of the school.

Many Canadian schools now have “time-out” rooms to accommodate students engaging in repeated inappropriate or disruptive classroom or playground behaviour. Those segregated school spaces go by a variety of names ranging from “time-out” to “quiet corner” to “isolation” depending upon the province and particular school district.  Most, if not all, education authorities now have “guidelines” for the use of “designated time-out” rooms.  In the Atlantic provinces, for example, a set of formal guidelines, developed first in 2002 in New Brunswick, have essentially sanctioned such “behaviour-modification” actions.

Intervening in the classroom to curb misbehaviour or ‘acting-out’ by calling a “time-out” is commonly accepted professional teaching practice.  In most instances, it is the appropriate strategy, and Special Education research (ABA) tends to show that it can be effective in reducing problem behaviours, including those exhibited by students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and behavioural disorders. Faced with students demonstrating aggressive or potentially dangerous behaviours, teachers need to have a range of means to assist in settling students down in school.

Having recognized that practical classroom reality, the “time-out” strategy can lead to more intrusive and potentially damaging measures involving “restraint” and “seclusion.” The Canadian Council for Exceptional Children recognizes restraint and seclusion as “an emergency response, not a treatment.” The Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysis (ONTABA) recommends carefully planned, monitored and limited time-out sanctions and restraint and seclusion as “a last resort” in an “emergency situation.”

American professional organizations such as the APBA, faced with far more lawsuits, are far more explicit in setting limits. “The misuse and abuse of restraint and seclusion procedures with vulnerable people is intolerable,” according to the APBA (2009), ” an represents a clear violation of ethical principles and accepted professional practice.”

Over the past decade, “isolation rooms” have come to light as a direct result of some well-publicized and disturbing cases. In March of 2009, the parent of 8-year-old Dylan Gale went public over the confinement of her son in a the “storage closet” of a Windsor, NS, public school. A Nova Scotia Education Department survey found that 42 such unregulated rooms existed in provincial schools and that revelation led to the implementation of an August 2009 set of guidelines.

Even with policies in place, alleged abuses continue to happen across Canada. Last school year, a 9-year-old autistic boy attending Ottawa’s St. Jerome Catholic School was handcuffed by police officers on school premises and Toronto-area parent Karen Thorndyke launched a $16 million law suit against the Peel District School Board for confining her autistic son to an “isolation room.”

Schools are not intended to be prisons or young offender’s centres, so time-outs, restraints and seclusion tend to arouse very strong feelings. In Britain, vocal critics of “isolation rooms” campaign for their abolition because they tend to be applied against Special Education students who find themselves “frightened and alone” in such enclosed spaces. Since the 2006 report, “The Costs of Inclusion,” the issue has been hotly-debated. That report’s findings demonstrated that the real purpose of seclusion was to “remove the disruption” so that “teachers can get on with teaching.”

Seclusions have only short-term impact and only solve an immediate problem for a teacher attempting to cope with a class of 27 to 30 other students. A 2010 U.K. Bernardo’s report, “Not present and not correct, concluded that isolating a student “usually neither addressed the issues leading to discipline problems, nor provided any guidance that would help the young person learn to control themselves.”

Isolation of students does not really address the root causes and merely hides it away from sight. It also raises fundamental policy questions: What is the impact of restraint and seclusion on our most challenged and vulnerable children and youth? How can we support teachers confronting significant behavioural problems without entrenching such potentially damaging practices? Is it right to remove one child from the room so that others can learn? Is this chronic issue one of the unintended consequences of imposing “fully inclusive classrooms” on everyone?

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Two years ago, Korey Breen’s son, was struggling in elementary school and suffering from three debilitating conditions —fear, anxiety and loss of confidence. The clouds lifted when the Moncton mother of three found an educational lifeline in a tiny, home-like school established to serve kids with severe learning challenges. There he finally felt safe, accepted and at  home. RiverbendAwardDay Finding a place like Riverbend Community School was a godsend, but only the beginning of that struggle to turn her son’s life around. “Raising a child with special needs and severe learning disabilities and no financial support,” she confesses, “has been extremely difficult and takes everything we have.”

Struggling students in Moncton, New Brunswick, have very few options outside the regular mainstream public school system. For elementary students with severe learning challenges and their families, Riverbend Community School is really the only option, and, even then, only viable when you can scrape together the money to pay its hefty $11,500 tuition fees. For hundreds of families this is simply beyond reach.

My latest research report, published by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), demonstrates that a gaping hole exists in New Brunswick’s Special Education safety net. Since 2004, that gap has been closed in Nova Scotia with the adopting and expansion of that province’s unique Tuition Support Program, designed to meet the needs of Korey’s son and hundreds of others struggling on the margins of the regular school system.

New Brunswick now has a school providing a beacon of hope that could easily serve as a pilot school for a completely new approach embracing the full continuum of special education support services. Since its inception as a Day School in September 2013, a small but growing number of families are discovering Riverbend, attracted by the passion of its youthful Co-Director, Rebecca Bulmer, and often desperate for a special program specifically designed to respond to their children with such complex needs. “If you have a struggling and confused child in your life,” Bulmer says, “we can help. We can replace fear and anxiety with pride and success” That is also the key message of her recent CBC Moncton Information Morning series called “Learning Outside the Box,” explaining the world of learning disabilities to a new audience.

The Moncton school for high risk students is filling a gaping hole in the system. Struggling students and their parents are finding the Riverbend Community School completely on their own because it flies below the radar and is funded entirely by fee-paying parents. Like most such independent ventures, it exists because of the sheer dedication and commitment of its founders, Rebecca and Jordan Halliday, and Rebecca’s mother, Priscilla Wilson, the retired school teacher who first saw the need and, back in 2008, opened her own Moncton tutoring centre.

Out of that little project emerged today’s Riverbend School, a growing presence with 10 day students and some 40 students enrolled in its after-school tutoring programs in reading and mathematics. All are attracted by the simple commitment to “discover the potential” in each child and to provide “the proper intervention” needed to strengthen their “resilience” and give them back the feeling of success. For many families, it’s a financial struggle to keep the children there.

The Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program (TSP), initiated in September 2004, is providing the bridge for many families without the financial means to pay much in the way of tuition fees. The TSP exists to be that lifeline for severely learning challenged kids 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 funding covers most of the tuition costs to attend designated special education private schools (DSEPS) in Nova Scotia. At a cost of $2.5 million a year, it currently serves some 225 students attending three designated schools, in six locations across Nova Scotia.

Since my initial AIMS report, A Provincial Lifeline, three years ago, the TSP has been sustained and further improved in Nova Scotia, but has yet to appear in either New Brunswick or Prince Edward Island. Consistent and reliable support from the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development has been of great help to families that are in –or near — crisis. Since February 2012, it’s easier to qualify and parents now have more secure support, a blessing for those desperately in need of financial assistance to pay the tuition fees.

Specialized learning disabilities schools like Moncton’s Riverbend deserve that opportunity to be recognized and extending similar tuition support would certainly help broaden accessibility in N.B., a province where an estimated 1,000 children suffer from these challenges. Providing a lifeline for our most vulnerable children and youth simply makes common sense all around for students, families, and the province. It not only helps to reduce potential long-term social and economic costs, but in Nova Scotia is already helping to producing happier families and more productive young citizens.

Why are Special Needs Kids falling between the cracks in New Brunswick’s school system?  What impact has the Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program had on access to specialized support services? What can New Brunswick and PEI learn from Nova Scotia’s TSP experience?  Will the AIMS report provide the nudge needed to close the gaping hole in the NB system?

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