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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 6, April 2007

Vancouver’s cuts in services

A key and frequently missing component in the emerging debate on the segregation of kids with special needs in a separate Vancouver school is the chronic underfunding over the years of special education programs by successive provincial governments in BC.

As a former principal of a Vancouver elementary school for 25 years, I have painfully watched what was once a lighthouse school district in the delivery of appropriate support, shamefully decimated—essential programs and services for special ed kids and their families are being eroded or disappearing entirely.

As staff members in a diverse urban system we felt justifiably proud of the co-operative and innovative community-based model developed by the VSB. A continuum of quality special ed services was provided in a flexible manner by the board. Not any more.

For the public record, as part of the ongoing debate, the battering the Vancouver School Board’s special education infrastructure has received over the years is evidenced by all of the following: the closure of the four (one in each area of the board) of the VSB’s highly successful Teaching and Evaluation Centers with specialized staff providing programs for kids with learning difficulties when they returned to their home school; the layoff of skilled speech and language pathologists, school psychologists, area counselors, itinerant teachers, and student support workers (SEAs); the dropping of the district’s autistic team; the near elimination of small allowances for supplies and resources for special ed classes; the complete elimination of the position of staff assistant (a position, at the time, unique to the VSB); the weakening of the district’s innovative school-based team model, which served as a hub for the co-ordination of in-school services; the cutbacks to mainstream programs and services also impeded our ability to integrate on a full- or part-time basis special ed students into regular classrooms; the gradual decrease in the essential number of workshops and in-service courses for learning assistance and resource teachers and other staff—the professional life blood of any special education program worth its salt.

This cumulative loss of expertise, experience, and resources in so many specialized areas took a terrible toll on the system. And bit-by-bit we are no longer able to provide the full range of learning options that our students need.

That the system has survived as it has is a tribute to the commitment of staff and dedicated parents who support our public schools.

It has not gone unnoticed that some of the proponents of a so-called model special ed school (a school within the Vancouver school system but outside the governance of the board) by their actions or by their inaction—Christy Clarke for example, who as minister of education slashed support, and NPA trustees whose silence over 16 years was deafening—are now leading the charge for a segregated school. Also it is not surprising that the current round of closed-door meetings, sponsored by the Ministry of Education for selected parents, are now part of the push to get this regressive model quickly approved without a full public debate.

Those who erroneously allege that the opponents of this plan are ideologically driven should consider the statement of a leading figure to the world’s education ministers at the 2005 OECD (Organization for Economic Development) conference on special education in Santiago, Chile.

Peter Evans, head of OECD’s special education program stated: "Our research shows that on average, disabled children in regular classrooms perform better than those in special schools. Those who go to special schools follow a different curriculum and it is difficult to integrate them into society after school. There is less prejudice against them if they have attended regular schools." To drive home his point he cited the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results for 2003, which showed disabled students doing remarkably well.

Successful and inclusive schools need appropriate, stable support in a mainstream public system, not retrograde, isolated models that deny all kids the opportunities for full participation they need and deserve.

Noel Herron, Vancouver

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