Group recommends major changes to special needs education

EDMONTON — Alberta is reshaping the province’s expensive and sometimes frustrating special education policy, with a new emphasis on assessing the learning needs of 67,000 students rather than the severity of their disabilities.

EDMONTON — Alberta is reshaping the province’s expensive and sometimes frustrating special education policy, with a new emphasis on assessing the learning needs of 67,000 students rather than the severity of their disabilities.

Parents, teachers and school boards have been complaining for years that the existing special education system is failing children because of an arbitrary classification system and a lack of funding and staff.

So the province set up a $2 million review and formed a study group that has come back with sweeping recommendations that would see the old system phased out over several years and replaced with a more flexible curriculum to fit each student’s needs.

Education Minister Dave Hancock said there have been widespread complaints about the existing model, which assesses special needs students under three categories — mild, medium and severe.

“First and foremost you don’t then start from the presumption that every child needs an aide,” the minister said Monday in an interview.

“You take a look and say, ‘What does this child need to be successful in this classroom? What does this classroom need to be successful with this child?’ And then you resource it from that perspective.

“I think that creates a much more inclusive attitude.”

The minister conceded this option would be more expensive than the roughly $270 million the province currently spends on special needs education. But he said it’s too early to estimate additional costs.

Shauna Gervais has two special needs children and served on the working group for this study. She firmly believes the recommended changes will improve special needs education for most kids.

“They’ll feel welcome and feel that they can develop their individual potential without the focus being on their differences, but rather on their strengths and who they can become,” Gervais said in an interview.

“Rather than the focus being on what they can’t do, put the focus on what they can do.”

Heather Welwood, president of the Alberta School Boards Association, is also critical of the current system of classifying special needs children by their disabilities. She’s keen to see the special education system overhauled.

“A child in a wheelchair may be brilliant, yet in the model used right now they could be classified as severe because they’re in a wheelchair,” Welwood said.

“So I think a reallocation of resources is needed, looking at children from an educational perspective and still providing the medical help that they need.”