Special needs students are being denied the opportunity to learn, socialize and thrive to their full potential due to a lack of supports in Abbotsford schools, according to some local parents and advocates.
There are 1,801 students with special needs designations in the Abbotsford school district, roughly nine per cent of the total student population. Such designations are given to students with intellectual, physical or learning disabilities, as well as those with hearing or visual impairment, behavioural issues and mental illness.
The district receives additional funding from the province to support these students, including hiring learning support teachers and education assistants (EA). But there is a chronic lack of support for these students throughout the district, according to Karen Copeland, a local advocate.
Copeland, founder of Champions for Community Wellness, said she has spoken to over a dozen families with special needs students at Abbotsford schools who say their children are not getting the time they need with support staff.
Designated students each have an individual education plan (IEP) created for them by a learning support teacher (LST). It is then up to classroom teachers, EAs, parents, counsellors and the students themselves to work towards goals set out in that plan.
Meeting those goals is challenging for any special needs child but is made more difficult when they don’t have the time they need with the individuals who can help them.
“We continue to hear from families in our district whose children are having EA support withdrawn or shifted ‘due to budget constraints,’” Copeland said.
The mother of a Grade 11 student with a moderate intellectual disability, among other special needs, said her daughter has to remain in her home room and miss her favourite classes when there isn’t an EA on-hand to accompany to her class. She said her daughter experiences anxiety when she misses out on a cooking demonstration and then doesn’t know what to do in the next class. (The mother, concerned about repercussions, asked not to be named.)
The girl’s mother said her daughter has been encouraged to attend classes without her EA.
“I think that she then feels singled out,” she said. “She doesn’t want to go to school the next day because she needs that support. She both emotionally needs that support but she also physically needs that support.”
The mom said she has tirelessly advocated to the school and district for more support over the years.
“It’s this constant: why is there not someone with her?” she said.
But Abbotsford is far from a laggard in B.C., when it comes to special needs supports, according to Heidi Vinois, outgoing chair of the district parental advisory committee.
“When we examine other districts’ budgets, Abbotsford typically comes out really well in terms of cuts where other places have drastically cut, we even have added positions,” she said. “And it’s not enough to meet the needs out there.”
Vinois, DPAC’s incoming special liaison for special education, said the blame falls at the feet of the provincial government. The local district has no choice but to present a balanced budget with the funds it receives.
There just isn’t enough money coming in, she said.
Students who need support 100 per cent of the time are only getting it 80 per cent of the time, she said.
“So where does that leave a kid the other 20 per cent?” she asks.
The News requested figures tracking the amount of time special needs students have spent in and out of classrooms and with and without support staff over the last five years. A district spokesperson said that data was not tracked.
Vinois said the lack of supports puts a heavier burden on teachers and staff, who are forced to spent more time and energy with students who have the most acute needs. This, she said, leaves other students with moderate needs unattended to.
“These kids are just sitting there with little to no support in some schools,” she said.
Contract language from the 2002 collective agreement between the teachers’ union and province coming into full effect this fall, thanks to a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling, limit the number of designated students to three per classroom.
Both Vinois, who has an autistic son, and the mother of the Grade 11 student said they were not confident it would benefit their kids.
The Grade 11 student’s mother said she is concerned about how the scramble to re-arrange classes, hire teachers and create new classrooms will affect her daughter, whose anxiety will be compounded by any shuffling around.
“I’m concerned whether or not she would get the classes that were best suited for her,” she said.
Vinois said she doubts the district will be able to meet the requirements by September, as it competes with other B.C. dsitricts to hire 2,500 teachers provincewide. The contract calls for districts who fail to comply with class composition rules to “pay remedies,” which could mean paying teachers for more prep time.
“So, in theory, it’s a phenomenol move forward and in actuality it’s going to take a long time before we can meet those needs,” she said “The kids that are going to miss out and lose here are the kids with special needs,” she said.