When Matea Schurman first started pre-kindergarten in Red Deer, it was a very frightening experience for the young girl with autism.
“The child that we saw when we first started pre-k was a little girl who hid under the table and couldn’t allow people to be near her. She was terrified of her world and everything around her…it was too much for her,” said her mother Jessica Schurman.
“Now we’ve got a little girl who sits in her Grade 2 classroom and is engaged in what they’re doing, and is learning about Canada and Saskatchewan and all these wonderful things, and has friends and people who understand her and accept that her brain is different. She might do things a little bit differently but she has worth in her classroom and she is 100 per cent included and celebrated.”
Schurman is one of the parents in Central Alberta who has a special needs child in school who will be affected by cuts of almost $1 million in provincial funding that helps vulnerable students through the Regional Collaborative Service Delivery (RCSD) program.
“I’m very scared for her.”
School districts in Central Alberta are fighting the funding reduction because they say it hurts their most vulnerable students.
The program is a partnership involving Alberta Education, Alberta Health Services, Community and Social Services, and Children’s Services, providing professional services such as speech language pathologists and occupational therapists to help special needs students and their teachers.
Jessica Schurman said eight-year-old Matea, who is doing very well in a fully inclusive classroom at Annie L. Gaetz School in Red Deer, was diagnosed with autism five years ago. It’s extremely difficult for her to communicate with words so she uses an iPad with a special app.
Jessica said the reduced funding is heartbreaking and minimizes the work that the professionals do, and it’s too much to ask teachers already spread thin to become speech language pathologists, occupational therapists or psychologists.
Matea is seen by all three professionals in the school, who observe her, and then consult with school staff about ways to help her learn.
Jessica said maybe one less therapist doesn’t sound like a big deal but it means that instead of a student being seen once every two weeks, it may be every six weeks, and the waiting list grows. “Children aren’t static and Matea definitely isn’t. She’s always changing. … I think it’s best to invest in her now.”
Jessica sits on an inclusive education parent steering committee in Red Deer Public Schools, and also facilitates an autism support network in Red Deer.
While free lunch programs and $25 a day daycare are in fact wonderful. “But this is the difference between my daughter being able to communicate and actively participate in school, and the people who are with her seven hours a day understanding her, and that’s important too.”
Alberta Education spokesperson Lindsay Harvey said by email that funding for RCSD has not ended.
“The transition funding that was provided to school boards for three years has ended. While the three-year transition funding for RCSD has ended, our government is pleased to be providing stable support for the program overall. The base funding for RCSD has also increased by $8 million since 2014.”
“Red Deer School District will receive more than $8 million in Inclusive Education funding in 2017-18 — which is up nearly $140,000 from last year,” she said.
The cuts to the Regional Collaborative Service Delivery program will take effect in the next school year.