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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 6, April 2007

Phony consultation on provincial autism school

by Dawn Steele

An informed parent writes the minister

This is a letter I wrote to the education minister on March 16, 2007, after leaving the invitation-only parent meeting to discuss the minister’s plans for a provincial autism school. I left when it was made clear that I would not be permitted to voice the concerns that I had been asked to by the Vancouver Autism Parent Group to raise.

Dear Minister Bond

I’m writing as a parent to express grave concern over (1) your planned provincial demonstration school for autism, and (2) your ministry’s disturbing abuse of process in consulting with parents about this planned school. I will start with the latter.

Provincial model school for autism—Process

I was asked by several groups to represent them at an invitation-only meeting organized by the ministry to consult with parents on a proposed provincial demonstration school for autism. I agreed to attend as a delegate for the Vancouver Autism Parents’ Group, to bring forward some of the concerns we have been hearing from parents about the concept. There are currently 426 identified students with autism in Vancouver’s public schools—about 1/6 of the provincial total. Vancouver’s District Parent Advisory Council has rejected the model school concept. So has the Vancouver School Board’s Special Education Advisory Committee and the Vancouver Autism Parents’ Group. I summed up all the concerns and solicited additional comments from my own provincial autism parents network.

At the meeting, we were informed that the minister had already decided to proceed with the creation of a provincial demonstration school for autism as a choice and that ministry staff were studying what form this would take and how it would be funded and operated. Provincial schools are permitted under BC’s School Act, though none have existed for some time, since the old segregated schools were closed down. When asked why the minister had decided on a provincial autism school as the solution to problems facing students with autism in our public schools, we were told this decision was based on earlier input that parents wanted more choices—a remarkable suggestion, given that today’s meeting was the ministry’s first public (albeit invitation-only) consultation with parents of students with autism on this concept!

Halfway into the meeting, after participants had been extensively canvassed about potential benefits of such a concept, I pointed out that the agenda only permitted 15 minutes to discuss potential challenges and no opportunity to discuss concerns about a provincial model school for autism, compared to 90 minutes allocated to potential benefits and attributes of such a school. Given the diversity of views on this issue among participants, I requested equal time to discuss concerns. Ministry staff refused, stating that this was not the purpose of the meeting. Later in the meeting, staff refused to permit a show of hands to see how many parents did not favour the concept of a provincial model school for autism.

I wish to formally protest the disrespect shown to all participants, to due process, and to any reasonable concept of public consultation. If the minister and/or her deputy have already made up their minds and are simply looking for a choir to sing praises and provide justification for the decision, why waste our valuable time by pretending to consult?

Finally, given that no details were provided to participants about what form this provincial school for autism will take, one must challenge the validity of the long list of supposed benefits that proponents were invited to list at this meeting. (Examples included well-trained staff, safety, parent involvement, expertise in autism, and accountability–none of which could be attributed with any certainty to a vague proposal in which teaching methodology, structure, staffing, and governance have not yet been defined.) If this is how this ministry develops policy, then it should be no surprise that special education in this province is in the dire state that we find it today.

Provincial model school for autism–Concept

Rationale
This ministry’s core mandate is to provide education—based on sound educational principles—not to offer a smorgasbord of choices. A provincial model school for autism requires a sound educational rationale, and the ministry has failed to provide any such rationale for having already decided to open such a school.

Evidence-based decision-making requires a clear definition of the problem/objective, to allow purposeful implementation and objective evaluation. The ministry has provided no evidence that a dearth of "choice" is the key problem facing BC’s 2,593 public school students with autism, or explained how a single Vancouver school will offer more choice to the majority of students who live too far away to attend it. Most of the issues raised by parents at today’s meeting related to inadequate quality/quantity of special ed services in the public schools to meet the unique needs of their children. This is consistent with what I’ve heard in extensive discussions over nine years with parents of hundreds of students with autism, and with parent/ advocates representing the rest of BC’s 61,277 students with special needs. So if the problem is actually the inadequacy of special ed in our public schools, we need to understand why that is so before we can decide on what would be an effective solution. Here are the key reasons that I’ve heard from parents:

1. Ideology
BC has a pragmatic policy of inclusion that recognizes integration in regular classrooms as the default, but certainly not the right answer for everyone, or all the time, and therefore calls for a range of options so that each child can receive services and supports in ways dictated by their unique needs. It’s a good policy, but trustees and staff feel free to interpret it as they choose, sometimes based on personal ideologies, and often to the detriment of students, because there are no ministry checks and balances to ensure the intent of provincial policy is respected.

Since 2002, certain ministry policy shifts have also unintentionally degraded the quality of special education services. For example, the shift to school-based decision-making/staffing has resulted in a significant loss of special education expertise. In 1999, Vancouver had a full district team of highly specialized autism experts on call to support all students and provide individualized advice and training to their teachers and aides. That team has gone, leaving generalist school-based resource teams who are expected to cover everything that crops up—ESL, "grey-area kids," autism, Aboriginal, behaviour, communication, etc. for that particular school. This organizational model is not effective or conducive for addressing complex special needs. It’s far more cost effective to have district-based specialists who can provide more specialized expertise to support challenging students across the district.

2. Resourcing
In 2000, the ratio of special needs teachers to students with special needs in Vancouver was 1:9. In 2006, that ratio had climbed dramatically to 1:13. (Source: Vancouver Special Ed Advisory Committee brief to VSB Budget consultations, March 2007). Each special needs teacher in Vancouver is now handling 50% more students with special needs compared to just six years ago (when the ministry commissioned a special report on the "Crisis in Special Education in BC"!). It should therefore surprise no one that BC’s teachers are unable to deliver adequate service to students with autism/special needs in our public schools today. Not only are they less specialized, they also have far higher caseloads.

Further, school-based therapies (speech and language pathology, occupational therapy) that are critical to autism and other special needs have been drastically cut, due to the 2002–04 MCFD budget cuts. Waitlists are endless. Recently, one Vancouver student was finally approved for speech therapy on turning 19 and leaving school, after waiting for most of his school life for critical help that never came.

The intensive programming that some parents of students with autism are demanding in a provincial model school are equivalent to elite New York models that charge $72,000 to $120,000 US per student annually. In comparison, your education ministry only pays our public schools $16,000 a year for each student with autism. In Vancouver, the cost of a special ed teaching aide alone is over $35,000/year. So our provincial funding does not even cover half the cost of an aide and none of the cost of specialist services required. No wonder our public schools aren’t measuring up to these expectations! Why not spend the extra $70,000 per student in the public system, to allow our public schools to succeed instead of shipping kids off to segregated provincial schools when they fail because there was no one to help them in the first place? If some students need specialized separate programming, why not fund this as a demonstration program in one district or across the board as district programs in the public system? Why do we need a provincial school to demonstrate teaching methodologies and programs that have been proven over and over elsewhere?

3. Collective agreements/legislation
The education ministry and its representatives have negotiated collective agreements that place professional autonomy/seniority rights above the individual needs of students. Many parents complain that the public schools are powerless to resolve problems when the rights of staff take precedence over the rights of students. We must as parents respect workers’ rights and working conditions. My own child’s teachers and aides have mostly been stellar, going far beyond the call of duty. And parental expectations can at times be unrealistic. But some staff and their unions must also accept some responsibility for the problems, frustration, and widespread lack of faith that I often hear from parents.

The education minister also introduced legislation last year, Bill 33, which places the rights of staff and other students ahead of the rights of students with autism/other special needs. Bill 33 has limited their access to key classes without any provision to ensure our children’s educational needs will be respected when they are turned away due to the new special needs classroom caps.

Districts policies and practices create additional administrative barriers to educating students with autism—for example, only the most junior teachers with no special ed training or experience are being assigned to Vancouver’s special education programs.

These are very real and complex problems. But you need to sit down with all the partners to examine how real-world contractual, administrative, or legislative barriers impede the education of students with special needs and autism. A provincial model school set up in a Utopian Ivory Tower outside the collective agreements, outside district policies and practices, and/or outside legislation like Bill 33 will do nothing to help identify those barriers and how to resolve them over the long run for the benefit of all students with autism/special needs in BC.

A Cadillac autism school that can work in a Utopian world proves nothing new—there are plenty of existing American and Canadian models that do exactly that. If the minister wants to demonstrate something truly useful, show us that a quality autism program can work in the face of realities confronting real school districts and actual public school teachers and administrators. It will certainly be more difficult to do, but involving all the players from the outset will give them a sense of ownership, create buy-in, and support knowledge transfer so that the initial investment pays the greatest possible dividends in the long run.

4. Training
A major challenge cited by parents is the lack of training and expertise among staff in the public system. University/college training programs are nowhere near adequate to prepare teachers for today’s diverse classrooms. Special ed teachers have all but vanished as a profession and funding/interest in in-service training is at best limited. If trained teachers are so scarce in the public system, how are we going to magically find them for this provincial school? And if we do lure a few from the public schools, how does this help students in the bigger picture? If we are going to have to recruit and train them to make a provincial school work, why not just recruit and/or train them to support students in the public system instead?

What expertise will be required for this provincial school? Why hasn’t the minister or her staff approached the experts who teach special education at UBC and SFU to ask them what expertise will be needed and if a provincial model school is the best way to provide it? I’ve talked to some of them and am informed that they are more than willing to offer their expert advice, if someone at the ministry would just ask.

5. Accountability
Since 2002, the ministry’s emphasis on standardized testing as the primary accountability instrument for public schools has also indirectly hurt students with autism and special needs, who are excluded from most standardized tests. Resources and attention get focussed on what gets measured, usually at the cost of what’s not getting measured, and that is exactly why resources have been shifted away from special education and toward elite/prestige programs to compete for high performing students who will improve a school’s FSA scores or arrest declining enrolment.

Few, if any district accountability contracts have any meaningful performance measures to assess outcomes for students with autism (or most other special needs). Not one of the education ministers, since Christy Clark introduced this concept in 2002, has ever expressed the slightest concern over this. Given the premier’s commitment to building the best system of support for special needs in Canada (Great Goal for the Golden Decade #3), it is deeply disturbing that as minister you have not set a single performance measure specific to students with special needs or autism in your 2007–08 Service Plan.

6. Squeaky wheel system
We have a squeaky wheel special education system in BC. My own son with autism is doing very well in an integrated public school classroom because I’ve learned how to "squeak" very effectively. When told my son would not qualify for an aide in high school next year, I shared my concern with the opposition critic, who raised it in Question Period. Fifteen minutes later, my principal called to say that our district had confirmed aide support for my son next year.

Many students doing well in the public system either have milder forms of autism, like my son, or else their parents know which doors to knock on when help is initially denied. And when the public system fails, families with financial means can always turn to private options to rescue their kids. But the majority of BC’s 2,593 students with autism in our public schools don’t have that luxury, nor do most of the 61,277 students overall in the province with various special needs. In Vancouver, more than half our 426 students with autism have ESL families. When they complain about inadequate supports to assure safety and/or academic progress, they’re told that’s all the ministry funds and that’s all they should expect. End of story—because they don’t know which doors to knock on and language barriers make it very difficult to express the necessary arguments to force the school, the district, and the minister to live up to their obligations.

Provincial schools—the wrong answer to a real problem

No parent, who has ever watched their child or another child struggle, would ever want to deny an opportunity to help a child in crisis find the support necessary to thrive and succeed. My heart goes out to families asking for a special school because the public system has failed their children. My heart also goes out to the many other families who have approached me for help because their children are suffering equally, except they don’t know how to be "squeaky wheels" and they won’t be helped by a provincial model school.

Solutions that tackle the above problems within our public schools are what we need, because these will help all students who are struggling, not just a few. Solutions that are imbedded in the public system from the outset will take more effort but they will identify the real barriers, generate more buy-in, serve children province-wide, and pay the maximum long-term dividends for all students. Solutions that build on the range of options now available to address the diversity of special learning needs in our public schools will help all students succeed, not just the handful in Greater Vancouver who manage to make it off the waitlists for specialized services at a single provincial school.

For all these reasons, a provincial demonstration school is the wrong answer to a very real need. Demonstration programs in our public schools that model how to make the public system more responsive to the needs of especially challenging students—Yes! More support for integrated students—Yes! Seeking out and celebrating and learning from the success stories in our public system—Yes! More accountability and the will all around to address barriers to success—Yes! Demonstration programs designed from the outset, with educator input, to facilitate knowledge transfer and capacity building in the public system—Absolutely!

Phony consultation to provide window-dressing for a "done deal" —No! Real dialogue that asks all the partners to help define the barriers and consider how they can contribute to solving them—Yes!

I do see one significant advantage in a provincial autism school model (as opposed to a demonstration project in the public system). It will finally give us a clear accounting of the full cost of accommodating and educating a student with challenging special needs, thereby finally providing a sound basis for adjusting the provincial funding formula to cover the real costs of special education in our public schools.

Dawn Steele, a parent of a student with ASD, Vancouver.


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