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BCTF Advantage
Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 2, October 2007

Langley special education inquiry

By Gail Chaddock-Costello

It is early in the school year, yet as I proof this article for the Teacher newsagazine, I have already heard that phrase dozens of times. It began at the BCTF Summer Conference in Kamloops, when delegates from districts across the province expressed a keen interest in the inquiry into special education in Langley. It appears our concerns regarding the rising numbers of students identified with special needs, the decreasing numbers of qualified staff to address their needs, and the lack of inclusion of special education teachers in the Bill 33 process, are not unique to Langley.

When the BCTF Executive approved our proposal for financial and staff support in February of 2007, they set in motion a series of presentations, workshops, and meetings that are continuing at a rapid pace this fall. At our last steering committee meeting, we were excited to review the research component of our inquiry. This work was completed under the direction of Dr. Maureen Hoskyn and her undergraduate and graduate students at SFU. The inquiry panelists have already been sent copies of the winning research from the CRECHE (Centre for Research on Early Child Health and Education)—BCTF Scholarship Competition. An unexpected highlight for us was the news that one of our own Langley special education teachers, Elizabeth Wood, had written the first place winner: "Addressing the Working and Learning Conditions of Secondary Special Education Teachers: Embracing Collaboration." We were delighted that Elizabeth Wood was available to meet with our committee, summarize her research, and answer questions relevant to the inquiry.

Our posters and bookmarks advertising the public hearings were distributed to teachers, CUPE 1260, and PAC representatives on September 10 and we quickly received requests for booking times to present to our panelists. We believe this indicates that parents of students with special needs, staff working with these students as well as local community support agencies, are increasingly concerned about the size of special education teachers’ caseloads. They realize with caseloads two to three times the size they were prior to our contact being stripped in January of 2002, that even highly trained staff, with the best of intentions, cannot deliver the same quality of programs, with the same degree of expediency, as was possible in 2002. In addition, these same groups express grave concerns regarding the lack of support for those "needy" but yet-to-be identified students, and the shortage of qualified staff should the positions be created.

This real sense of urgency energized our steering committee to complete the work required to organize a dynamic, student-centered "Inquiry into Special Education in Langley." We have now completed the second component of the inquiry by training parents, teachers, and CUPE 1260 members to facilitate focus groups. These focus groups were used to solicit opinions on the topics of special needs and special education in a highly structured setting, with groups of 8–12 individuals at each session.

CUPE staff conducted two focus groups with 12 participants in each group; LTA conducted two focus groups with a total of 23 teachers, and 28 parents held three focus sessions, all facilitated by trained parent volunteers. The data collected and recorded will be collated and made available to our three external panelists prior to the public hearings.

These hearings and the resulting recommendations can’t come soon enough! Stress levels are on the rise among special education teachers and regular classroom teachers. Parents are rightfully demanding their child be provided service according to their needs and the recommendations stipulated in their psycho-educational assessment. Unfortunately, as the school year unfolds, there are not enough special education teachers or assistants in place to provide the reading, scribing, augmentative communication support, and physiotherapy required for these students to experience optimum success in the school setting.

The Bill 33 consent and consult process, if it included special education teachers, might actually have an opportunity to identify and remedy some of these inequities in education. Currently, these teachers still appear to be beyond the scope of Bill 33—no caseload maximums, no cap on the numbers of identified students they should reasonably be expected to assist in any one block, and they are still required to accept all students with special needs who enroll in their schools, regardless of their caseload size. Why "regular" classroom teachers have limits under law but special education teachers are considered "exempt," is a question worthy of an answer from the Ministry of Education. While we wait for that response, we are continuing to prepare for the third component of our inquiry, the public hearings held by our three external panelists.

When you read this, our Public Inquiry into Special Education will have officially finished. The hearings, presided over by our panelists Mike Suddaby, retired superintendent of schools, Maple Ridge; Nadine Guiltner, retired teacher and published author, and Dr. Shirley McBride, retired director of Special Programs, BC Ministry of Education, will already have taken place in Langley on October 24, 25, and 29. However, it is then that the most important section of the inquiry will be under way. The panelists will produce a report with recommendations regarding the working and learning conditions of special education teachers and students in Langley. It is, and always has been, our belief that this report will be a significant reflection on special education, not only for Langley, but for all school districts in BC.

We are convinced that collectively, as a community of concerned citizens, parents, and professionals, we can advocate successfully for the supports public education requires to meet the real needs of all students.

Gail Chaddock-Costello is 2nd vice-president, Langley Teachers’ Association.

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