On Nov. 10, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of teachers, restoring class size and composition in our schools. For 15 years, teachers and students experienced the consequence of those lost rights. We must ensure the ruling is fully implemented in 2017.
Across B.C., school boards had to service students with 3,500 fewer specialist teachers. Higher specialist ratios and new models of delivery were adopted where one specialist had to do the work of three or four.
Before 2002, Learning Assistance teachers worked mostly with primary students in small groups of 25 to 30 students. Those who did not progress were tested by grade two, assigned to a resource room and had intensive support for their learning disabilities. In the early 90’s, Resource Room teachers in Surrey worked with 10 to 12 kids with the help of a full-time Education Assistant.
Students in a “low incidence” designation worked with a Special Education teacher in even smaller groups of 5 to 6 kids to develop social emotional skills and improve behaviour. They followed a tailor-made program to meet the challenges of autism and/or other complex developmental needs.
Finally, there were ESL teachers who taught groups of 4 to 6.
Every school had learning assistance, resource, and ESL teachers. There were more counsellors, librarians, music specialists, and psychologists in the system. Students were better supported.
Because of adequate specialist and classroom ratios, teachers could collaborate and follow Individualized Education Plans easily as no more than two children with IEPs were in a class. Otherwise, the numbers of students in that class was lowered.
When the Liberals passed Bills 22 and 28, everything fell to pieces for specialists, classroom teachers, and students. Workloads jumped from previous ratios to 50 or 60 students per teacher. In Vancouver, a ratio of 120 was not unheard of. To further balance their budgets, boards put students of English language learning together with LD students. This made the job difficult as each type of student has different needs.
Today, classrooms have as many as 7 children with special needs. Without adequate space, sometimes students are taken out in hallways to be taught or to “calm down.” We even see the return of “isolation” rooms, which go against the theory or benefit of integration.
When positions were amalgamated, teachers did a quick learning curve to meet varying student needs. As caseloads climbed, so did the paperwork, auditing, and yearly testing to apply for the (inadequate) Learning Improvement fund. Previously, we could count on categories to guarantee students’ teaching time. That changed as well: once funds from government no longer followed the student but were put in the “core,” there was no standard of allotted time. Programs became watered down and the term “Band-Aid” teaching came in use. These conditions drove many specialists back to the classroom or to early retirement and their expertise was lost. Others left the dream profession they had worked so hard to enter.
A specialist’s job became assisting everyone who seemed to need help. Parents had to teach teachers about the needs of their children. Parents of children with autism sacrificed their jobs to teach their own children at home or mortgaged their homes for ABA trained assistants because the system lacked them and often sent kids home. Profits and subsidies rose for private schools.
Brilliantly gifted students whose programs were cut by a third were unchallenged and gave up. Instead of being the leaders of tomorrow, some were fraught with anxiety and depression for lack of counselling and guidance. First Nations children took their own lives for lack of support and services.
In 2017, we must be vigilant. Appropriate support is dependent on testing and keeping categories which clearly elicit teaching time. Parents need to stay informed. If the government tries to circumvent the appropriate ratios, it will negate the gains of the Supreme Court win, the most critical event of 2016.
This ruling has given us back the chance to once more support kids and move public education forward. On Jan. 5, money for 1,100 new teachers rolled out, not even a third of what used to be there. So, a nervous feeling as negotiations drag in restoring fully the guarantees that were there for class size and composition.
Voters and parents must not trust any manipulations or regressions, knowing the Liberal track record on education funding. Our neglected kids are waiting for us to act if the damage is not repaired. An election is looming: a chance to vote wisely.
Niovi PatsicakisRetired Learning Support Teacher