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OPINION: How can schools absorb wave of pre-Primary pupils when special-needs kids are left scrambling?

There are so many metaphors you can use here — investing in a new roof while your house burns to the ground comes to mind — but I don’t think we need them. Our education system is in complete chaos, and instead of getting it back on track, we’re inviting more children into an unmitigated disaster.
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Jen Halliday CB school protest
A small but vocal group of protesters gathered outside the school board office in Sydney last month, calling on the board to avoid cutting special-needs resources from next year's classrooms. (TOM AYERS / Local Xpress)

By ALLISON GARBER

As June comes to an end and summer months seem within reach, families of school-age children begin their planning. Cottage vacations, trips to the beach, summer camps. Thoughts of school will be in the rear-view mirror until mid-August, when they remember school supplies have yet to be purchased.

In contrast, families of Nova Scotia’s diverse learners — the children who require adaptations and inclusion supports — face a very different reality each June. It’s at this point where they assemble their individual advocacy campaigns to fight to secure the resources their child needs for the following school year. It’s an exhausting, anxiety-ridden process that no parent should go through, and a future no child should face — but here we are.

This brings me to the curious decision by our government to roll out a pre-Primary program for our province’s four-year-olds, starting this September before the provincial budget is passed in the legislature.

There is merit in this initiative, no question — particularly in rural communities where access to learning-based programming for young children is less prevalent than in urban communities.

What concerns me and many others is how our government believes we are currently in a position, both from a fiscal and strategic perspective, to open up the doors for more students to enter into our public education system when it’s in dire straits.

During labour negotiations with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, the floodgates opened with story after story detailing an education system in serious distress. Out teachers told us they didn’t have enough supports. They told us their students were struggling. They told us we were failing our most vulnerable children. They told us public education in Nova Scotia was in crisis.

Full stop.

After the fallout of the first teachers strike in Nova Scotia, it seemed as though a shift in focus took place. We were going to be prioritizing our P-12 students, their teachers and their classrooms. Government quickly announced a Council to Improve Classroom Conditions and an Inclusion Commission — both mandated to get to work immediately in providing recommendations.

Families like mine felt cautiously optimistic that our children depending on the inclusion model would have their potential recognized, that they would be given the support they required to succeed, that they would be offered the same opportunities for an education as any other child.

Then, before the Inclusion Commission could present its recommendations, the government decides to invest $50 million to bring more children into a crumbling system.

There are so many metaphors you can use here — investing in a new roof while your house burns to the ground comes to mind — but I don’t think we need them. Our education system is in complete chaos, and instead of getting it back on track, we’re inviting more children into an unmitigated disaster.

Last month, my friend Holly Smith reached out to me. She had learned that her school board in Cape Breton would be cutting two teaching assistants (TAs), jeopardizing her autistic son’s need for one-on-one support. Holly spent hours making multiple phone calls, meeting with school board and provincial officials and launched a petition that garnered hundreds of signatures.

Ultimately, the TAs were reinstated — at a huge emotional and physical cost to Holly and her family.

My son, who is also on the autism spectrum, goes to a school that currently has 37 children who rely on Learning Centre support. There are seven teaching assistants to support them. The number of children in the Learning Centre will increase for the next school year, but I’ve learned our TA allotment will likely decrease. As a result, our family’s individual advocacy campaign for my child is now well underway to make sure our little boy doesn’t fall through the cracks.

So you can understand why families like mine and Holly’s feel let down by this government. We struggle to process the information that this government has money to add an entire new year of public education, but not enough to make sure children with disabilities are given the accommodations they need to thrive.

How is that just?

One can argue that the Inclusion Commission was put in place to address these very concerns, and I hope that’s true, but my confidence the commission’s recommendations will be given any weight has been nullified with the decision to invest millions of dollars into onboarding more children into a system we can’t currently sustain. This is a decision that has been made before one single recommendation from the Inclusion Commission has been heard, and associated costing presented.

This isn’t just about children who require inclusion supports — it’s about every child who is currently enrolled in our province’s public P-12 system; when the school, when the classroom does not have the adequate resources to enable a learning environment that supports each child, every single student is let down.

As a communications consultant, I always caution my clients to not put the tactics before the strategy — as exciting as the tactics might be.

Sadly, and with great trepidation for my child and his peers, I fear this is the case with the decision to move forward with pre-Primary.

Allison Garber lives in Bedford. She is the mother of a child on the autism spectrum.



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