As I started door knocking in May for my public trustee re-election campaign, one of the most frequent questions I received from teachers and parents (whether they had special needs students in their family or not) was: what do I think of changes to classroom composition?
When I decided to become a trustee candidate in 2010, I took the time to pen out my vision and values. Many of my beliefs and values surrounding public education were honed by researching for the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta and serving as the President of the Students’ Union at the University of Alberta. Both experiences grounded my vision and values in a belief in a strong public education system guided by the wishes of the community to ensure all voices are heard and every student can succeed....
I wrote on my website “above all, public education means inclusiveness” An inclusive public education system benefits our whole city, because it builds an inclusive society, where we can fulfill the four UNESCO pillars: Learning to know, Learning to do, learning to be, learning to live together. It teaches us the value of diversity and celebrates what makes each of us special. Inclusiveness is the foundation of our democracy and it ingrains a fundamental respect for all citizens.
But how do we best achieve an inclusive public education system that helps every students succeed?
As many readers probably know, it is important to clarify that an inclusive public education system does not mean full inclusion within the classroom. It is a subtle, but very important distinction.
An inclusive system means having the aids and supports available so that every child can succeed. An inclusive system means making decisions in the best interest of every child, and understanding that there are very few “on size fits all” solutions. Some students may benefit from being within the regular classroom at certain times or for certain classes. Other students might have exceptional needs that prevent them from being in the general classroom. Their inclusion might be detrimental to the rest of the class and would not benefit that individual student, either.
Many parents I spoke to this summer were very frank and open about the opportunities and challenges facing their child. I can’t thank them enough for their honesty and their openness to share personal stories and experiences about their journey with a stranger on their doorstep. I heard fantastic stories about special teachers who will forever be on the family Christmas card list. But there were also sad stories about convoluted busing, lack of assistance and confusion navigating the system, and parents who essentially became fulltime advocates for the needs of their child. Not every family has the luxury of making a decision to commit one parent as a fulltime advocate for their child. So in those cases how do we make sure that these students aren’t falling through the cracks?
Parents didn’t want jargon or apple pie statements. They just wanted to know in plain language how they could ensure that their child’s unique needs were going to be met. They just wanted to be clear on what they were entitled to be advocating for.
Teachers I met on the campaign trail were very concerned about the implications of full inclusion on both the students with special needs in their schools and the effect changes might have on the children in the regular classroom. I heard from many teachers that the class sizes were big enough already, and most said that to the extent that it is feasible and in the best interests of the child, classroom inclusion is taking place already.
In our province more must be done to support special needs education at both ends of the spectrum. The general feeling I encountered speaking to residents this summer was concern. Concern that these decisions might be more motivated by budgetary pressures than by what is in the best interest of the child. Concern that decisions were going to be made to the detriment of all students in the classroom. Concern that students might lose the teachers aides and resources that they need. Concern from teachers that they may not yet be equipped to deal with the vast array of unique needs that full inclusion might bring to their classroom. I’ve spoke with many recent teaching graduates and current teachers who spoke to the value of receiving more training in supporting special needs, especially if changes are going to be coming in the next few years.
Based on my experiences, four concerns stuck with me as I was writing this blog post:
How can a school district work with parents, school councils, and the government to make it easier for parents to navigate the resources that already exist and to help each student succeed?
What can an engaged trustee do for them, and how can we ensure that all members of the community understand the importance of supporting students with special needs, learning disabilities, or who are struggling with literacy issues?
How can we best support our teachers and ensure that new teachers coming out of post-secondary are equipped to teach the unique needs of all students?
What resources does our system need to build an inclusive school system that ensures every student succeeds?