Along the Fraser: Working on inclusion in schools

Supreme Court ruled, teachers can bargain learning conditions. Money will flow back into the system for learning assistants, counsellors

Jack Emberly

Jack Emberly

“They have an opportunity now to make inclusion work; to stop parents going to court”

– Rick Moore.

Inclusion is providing for special needs children in classrooms.

It’s a goal of the B.C. Ministry of Education.

But, in 2002, Christy Clark, as minister then, removed class size and composition from teacher contracts.

But the province spent $2.6 million on  lawyers to deny the support teachers and programs kids needed for equal learning opportunity.

Because the Supreme Court ruled last November that teachers can bargain learning conditions, after all, money will flow back into the system for learning assistants, counsellors – the staff that make inclusion work.

In 2013, Susan Lambert, retired BCTF president, told me: “We’ve lost 1,500 learning assistants, special education and ESL teachers. It would take $3.3 billion to bring conditions in schools back to where they were in 2001.”

These aren’t alternate facts. The dollar figures were reported by the province’s secretary treasurer, she noted.

But the government’s abandonment of special needs kids didn’t start with the Liberals.

In 1994, Rick Moore’s son, Jeff, a North Vancouver Grade 3 kid with dyslexia, depended on a reading program delivered by specialized teachers at the district’s learning centre. The district closed it, blaming the NDP government for funding cutbacks.

The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal later determined Jeff and all learning disabled students had been discriminated against under the Human Rights Code.

It was a “systemic,” problem.

The NDP government appealed to the B.C. Supreme Court.

More legal fees.

Finally, in 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled equal educational opportunity was not a “dispensable luxury,” but “the ramp to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in B.C.”

The court failed, however, to uphold the tribunal’s conclusion that discrimination was systemic. Years of service and program cuts in all districts, including Maple Ridge, prove it is.

“Courts always do the minimum to make things right,” Moore told me recently.

“It meant parents had to use Jeff’s individual complaint against the ministry. If we’d won the systematic complaint, all districts would be forced to find how many learning disabled kids are in the system. Jeff wasn’t even on a list for testing. It took a note from a doctor to get him an assessment.”

Moore hopes learning disabled kids will now be identified through early screening and tracked from kindergarten. Remedial work and counselling are most effective when started early.

Traditionally, however, districts have relied on loose estimates, says Moore.

“It allows them to ignore learning disabled kids.”

Ironically, many such kids still go years without ever being tested, even though learning assistance teachers can recognize dyslexia using simple letter and word checks.

Support teachers are the key to inclusion.

“But, they must be specialized,” says Moore, “to make it work.”

Good point. Classroom teachers don’t have support training, and elementary support teachers may not know how to help Grade 11 kids with algebra.

Boards should not hire now just to save money.

Early detection means a healthier school system.

Unidentified kids are “putting burdens on the classroom teacher,” says Moore, “a drag on the system until they drop out, a cost to society. If Jeff had early pull out to remediate him, he’d have been a productive member of the room by Grade 4.”

The Moores enrolled Jeff in a private school to get the help he deserved.

“Many parents can’t afford that,” says Rick, and fighting the government is “a lot harder now. If a parent takes a school board to the Human Rights Tribunal, they get a gag order slapped on them, ostensibly to protect the child. It’s about protecting the system.”

What’s needed, says Moore, is the ministry’s honest commitment to inclusion.

“That’s in the School Act. What’s missing is political will.”

Jeff, a 38-year-old plumber, is “doing very well,” says Moore.

 

Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.