Support for special needs education in decline

A new report on special needs education has found the level of government support has actually declined since Alberta Education released its 2009 framework for inclusive education.

A new report on special needs education has found the level of government support has actually declined since Alberta Education released its 2009 framework for inclusive education.

The report from an eight-member panel established by the Alberta Teachers’ Association recommended that the government provide immediate, targeted, substantial and sustained funding for inclusive education.

Other recommendations were more clear and consistent communications, more time and professional development for teachers, the conducting of regular research on inclusive education and the establishment of advisory committees at all levels (provincial, school board and school) to guide successful implementation.

Marc Arnal, chair of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta Schools, said the increasing number of students with special needs combined with the lack of a cohesive implementation strategy from government is causing problems.

He said the frustrating part is that government did a wonderful job defining the parameters of inclusive education, and that was it.

“They have the system-wide responsibility for the overall education system. To just turn to jurisdictions and say, ‘here’s some money, just sort it out,’ I think is kind of an abdication of their role,” said Arnal, the former dean of Campus Saint-Jean at the University of Alberta, on Wednesday after the release of the report.

He said it’s not just a matter of funding. It’s important to develop and monitor plans.

“As long as you don’t hold a firm light on the subject it’s hit and miss and everybody is doing their own thing. Some are doing wonderful things, but nobody is able to benefit from the experience of those wonderful things,” Arnal said.

At Red Deer Public Schools, the inclusive classroom model reduced the number of students in special needs classrooms from 461 in 2010-11 to 118 students in 2013-14. The district believes that some students still need the highly specialized support those classrooms offer.

In 2010-11, a total of 1,050 students received supports, including those in special needs classrooms. In 2013-14, the district had a total of 2,018 students requiring extra support.

Each school in the district has a learning assistance team to support students with diverse learning needs in regular classrooms.

Piet Langstraat, Red Deer Public Schools superintendent, said this year the district received about $10.5 million from the province for special needs students and the district spent $15.8 million by taking money away from other programming.

He said $4 million is equal to about 40 teachers.

“There are certainly funding issues. We are spending $16 million out of a $110 million budget specifically on this area,” Langstraat said.

“We need to look for ways to increase those supports to continue to provide professional development, to provide research on the successes that are occurring for students in this model. What really matters at the end of the day is whether they are being more successful.”

Teacher Carrie Luckwell, of Annie L. Gaetz Elementary School, was a member of the Blue Ribbon Panel.

Kathleen Finnigan, associate superintendent of inclusive learning at Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division, said teachers, parents and senior administration are committed to inclusion, but the government needs to be committed too.

“That means financial commitment, but also these other key recommendations of professional development, regular research, advisory committees to help us with implementation of inclusion,” Finnigan said.

“Our classrooms are becoming more diverse. It could be a result of our influx of ESL, globalization, parents preferring inclusive education instead of other special programs.”

Red Deer Catholic superintendent Paul Mason said any additional funding for special needs students would be appreciated because it is needed.

“We are dipping into the funding we receive for our regular students in order to meet the increasingly complex needs of students that we’re seeing in our classes on a daily basis,” Mason said.

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