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Posts Tagged ‘Zach Churchill’

A year ago, a Nova Scotia Inclusive Education Commission headed by Dr. Sarah Shea of the IWK Children’s Hospital broke new ground in proposing a robust $70-million, 5-year plan to re-engineer inclusive education. The new model known as Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) attracted immediate and widespread support from classroom teachers, parents of learning-challenged students, and advocacy groups, including Autism Nova Scotia.

Today there are clear signs that the implementation of Nova Scotia Inclusive Education reform is going off-the-rails and the whole venture in danger of being turned to different purposes. Three critical implementation pieces have been dropped and the whole project is now under completely new management.

Education Minister Zach Churchill and his recently appointed Deputy Minister Catherine Montreuil have already abandoned three first stage recommendations: establishing an independent Institute for Inclusive Education (NSEII), appointing an Executive Director to spearhead the initiative; and commencing independent Canadian research into evidence-based MTSS practices.

Much of what is going inside Nova Scotia’s Education Department is now carried out behind closed doors and completely outside public view. Piecing together the puzzle requires the investigative skills of a Detective William Murdoch. Sleuthing in and around the Department does provide a few clues.

A January 2019 Provincial Advisory Council on Education (PACE) agenda featured a peculiar item under the heading “Inclusive Education Policy.” Assembled members of the appointed body, chaired by former HRSB chair, Gin Yee, were assembled to engage in an ‘interactive exercise’ focusing on “Dr. Gordon Porter’s work.” The published meeting minutes made no reference whatsoever to that discussion.

Seven months after Nova Scotia embraced the plan to build a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), the surfacing of Dr. Porter was downright strange on two counts. Canada’s leading champion of all-inclusive classrooms, New Brunswicker Porter, is well-known for advocating an approach at odds with the government’s stated policy. Not only that, but in October 2018, Education Minister Churchill had named Porter as the lead consultant responsible for overseeing implementation.

If there was any doubt as to where Dr. Porter stands on inclusion, that vanished on February 15, 2018 when he published a very revealing commentary in his house organ publication, the Inclusive Education Canada newsletter.

When a Toronto Globe and Mail feature story on an autistic Ontario boy, Grayson Kahn,  pointed out that his ‘inclusive classroom’ had failed him, Porter took great exception to the piece because it called into question the appropriateness of the all-inclusive model for everyone. “Classrooms, inclusive or not, do not fail students,” he wrote. “The responsibility for success or failure lies with officials of the Education Ministries and the leaders of the school districts who set the policies, allocate resources and are responsible to ensure accountability to both parents and taxpayers.”

After thirty years of fighting to rid the system of alternative settings and specialized support programs, he was not about to change, even when confronted with the current challenges of class composition posed by the dramatically rising numbers of students with complex needs and sometimes unmanageable behavioural disorders in today’s classrooms.

Porter and his Inclusive Education Canada allies, well entrenched in New Brunswick, continue put all their faith in the all-inclusive classroom. Most, if not all, of their public advocacy seeks to demonstrate how every child can thrive in a regular classroom. The whole idea of providing alternative placements, ranging from one-on-one intensive support to specialized programs is an anathema to Porter and his allies.  Instead of addressing the need for viable, properly-resourced multi-tiered levels of support, they promote provincial policy aligned with the international Zero Project, aimed at enforcing inclusion for all, including those, like Grayson, with complex needs and severe learning difficulties.

Defenders of the New Brunswick model, shaped and built by Porter, remain blind to the realities of today’s complex classrooms. Sending children regularly to “time-out rooms” or home as “exclusions” for days-on-end come to be accepted as expedients to keep, intact, the semblance of inclusive classrooms.

Further detective work reveals that Porter is not without an ally on the PACE.  The sole education faculty appointee on that essentially faceless appointed body is Professor Chris Gilham of St. Francis-Xavier University, trained at the University of Alberta and closely aligned with Porter’s thinking.

Gilham’s research and teaching are steeped in the Inclusive Education Canada philosophy. He’s a public advocate of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an educational framework designed initially for Special Needs children that aims to increase “access to learning for all students” by removing all school-level barriers, physical, cognitive, intellectual and organizational.

Classifying and coding Special Education students, Gilham and co-author John Williamson claimed in a 2017 academic article, is part of the “bounty system” which provides funding on the basis of designated, documented exceptionalities. It is clear, from his writings, that he’s opposed to the “bifurcation of students” into a “value-laden, deficit-oriented, gross categories” aligned with their particular learning needs.

Inclusion of all students is now virtually universally accepted, but the Nova Scotia Inclusion Commission, to its credit, recognized that it does not necessarily mean inclusion in one particular setting, but rather in the one best suited to the child along a continuum of services from regular classroom to specialized support programs. The Students First report pointed Nova Scotia in that direction and challenged us to build an entirely new model significantly different than that to be found in New Brunswick.

Reaching every student and building a pyramid of tiered supports were the Nova Scotia plan’s overarching goals, not endlessly seeking ways to integrate students into one universal, one-size-fits-all classroom and concealing the actual numbers of students on alternative or part-time schedules. It’s time to urge Minister Churchill and his Department find their bearings and return to the True North of MTSS as charted by Dr. Shea and the Inclusive Education Commission.

What is happening to the implementation of the new Nova Scotia model for inclusive education? Do the decisions to drop three first-stage implementation recommendations signal a change in direction? Why did Nova Scotia’s government hire Dr. Gordon Porter to review implementation?  Will Dr. Porter’s upcoming review report confirm the change in direction? 

 

 

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School Advisory Councils (SACs) have been around since the mid-1990s in most Canadian provincial school systems. A 2012 Ontario People for Education review of their equivalent, Parent Advisory Councils (PACS) found that most lack clarity and show signs of confusion when it comes to fulfilling their role, particularly with respect to providing local input into school decision-making.  In the case of two provinces, Ontario and Nova Scotia, they exhibit the same glaring deficiency – they are given little to do and simply revert back to their natural inclinations, to run bake sales and support school fundraising.

ParentAdvocacyOshawaActive parents supportive of their local public school are drawn to serve on SACs, only to discover that they are ‘creatures’ of the principal and totally dependent upon his/her support. Concerned parents with “agendas” are considered dangerous and discouraged from applying for SAC positions. Created originally to promote parent involvement in policy matters, they normally end up doing nothing of the sort and hosting ice cream socials.

Far too many SACs provide cover for school principals, keeping a core of parents in the inner circle, shielding them from “parent power” types, and generating extra funds for school supplies.  Where Home and School Association groups exist, principals generally favour the group that is the most inclined toward fundraising and the most politically inert of the two groups.

No survey has ever been published in Nova Scotia on the effectiveness of SACs, as presently constituted. In the case of Ontario, People for Education found that their PACs spend over 70% of their time either raising money or organizing school events, but only 10 per cent of their time on their assigned function – helping to shape School Improvement Plans.  That is also clearly the case here in Nova Scotia.

Nova Scotia has just abolished its eight elected English school boards and that has threatened to further erode democratic accountability in the school system. Replacing elected school boards with an appointed Provincial Council for Education (PACE) without any public transparency or accountability sent out that signal. “Enhanced School Advisory Councils” sounded fuzzy and now we know why. Any hope that SACs would fill the void left by the abolition of elected school boards has been dashed, for now.

NSedZachCurchillEducation Minister Zach Churchill and his officials recently confirmed that SAC’s will get more of a voice in advising on policy, but little or no substantial change in their powers. Genuine school-governing councils and expanded school-based management are not in the cards.

Planning for, and consultation to, strengthen “parent engagement” was carefully managed to steer participants in a pre-determined direction. It was all decided by education staff, working with small regional “focus groups” and vetted by principals through a Principal’s Forum held in early May of 2018.

The School Advisory Council consultation broke many of the accepted rules for genuine parent engagement. Embracing new ways calls for a complete “rethinking of the conventional approach” in what leading Canadian expert Debbie Pushor aptly describes as   a “gentle revolution” better attuned to responding to the needs and aspirations of parents and communities. “We need to do a better job,” Pushor recently said, “of talking with parents rather than for them or at them.”

Instead of truly engaging parents in rebuilding the whole N.S. model, the Department reverted to past practice in consulting with small, carefully selected “focus groups” and leaving it to the Principal’s Forum to settle unresolved issues.  Limit the consultation parameters, carefully select consultation group participants, and ensure that educators, in this case principals, settle the unresolved issues.

Contradictions abound in the Department’s summary of the focus group consultation. Invited participants identified two major problems with existing SACs: “low parent involvement and difficulty recruiting members,” especially independent community representatives. They also demonstrated how SACs are kept completely in the dark when it comes to province-wide issues, policy matters, or future policy directions.

Why will SAC powers continue to be limited and contained?  Several times we are assured that “participants did not want to see the responsibilities of SACs greatly increased” because they were “volunteers” and it was a lot to expect more from them.

The Department report paints a rather skewed picture of parent attitudes. ‘Participants expressed degrees of anxiety around the potential new role of SACs.” That sounds, to me, more like the voice of principals and parents surprisingly comfortable with the status quo.

The Nova Scotia report demonstrates that at least one of our eight regional school districts, Annapolis Valley RSB, merged the SACs with existing Home and School Associations contributing further to the confusion of roles.

“Supporting student learning” is a mandate fraught with potential confusion. Principals and teachers bear that primary responsibility, so SACs are reduced to junior partners in that enterprise. Most principals, for their part, resist parent involvement in curriculum and teaching, so discussion of “student learning” is very limited and constrained.

Existing SACs provide a wobbly basis for true parent engagement. Run under the thumb of many principals, they serve, for the most part, to muffle parent dissent and to channel active parents into school support activities. The “ground rules” established in March 2010 by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union make it clear that parents are expected to “contribute to the academic success of their children.”

Nova Scotia’s School Advisory Councils are strictly advisory. Two decades after their creation, some of the province’s 400 public schools still do not have functioning “school advisory councils.” Former HRSB board member Linda MacKay discovered that upon her election to office. Nor do they have a web presence and most remain all but invisible to community members.

Re-engineering School Advisory Councils will require more substantive changes. School-based budgeting would give SACs a significant role. Providing a base budget of $5,000 per council plus $1 per student is a pittance and far short of what is required to compensate SAC chairs for participating at local, regional, and provincial levels.

Today’s School Advisory Councils are, we have learned, totally in the dark when it comes to engagement in initial policy discussion, school improvement initiatives, and community accountability reporting. There is currently little or no two-way communication on most school-related issues.

Parent advocates get turned off when they discover that School Advisory Councils are weak and without any real influence. Defenders of SACs support the neutering of parent activism, then fret about why so few want to serve on such bodies.

Perhaps it’s all just a façade. While announcing enhanced roles for the SACs, Nova Scotia’s Education Department issued a new notice advising parents and the public with school concerns to raise them with the teacher, principal, and district administration. There’s no mention whatsoever of taking it up with your local school council.

Whatever happened to the critical policy advisory mandate of School Advisory Councils? Do active, informed, and policy-attuned parents shy away from joining today’s school councils?  Who rules the roost on most SACs — the school principal, a small clique of parents, or no one because it exists only on paper?  Are we missing out on an opportunity to engage parents in the challenge of school and system improvement? 

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